Slate Magazine published an article by Psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky criticizing the press’s assumption that depression led Andreas Lubitz to dive into a German mountainside. She writes:
Was Andreas Lubitz depressed? We don’t know; a torn-up doctor’s note and bottles of pills don’t tell us much. Most people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness, most commonly depression. But calling his actions suicidal is misleading. Lubitz did not die quietly at home. He maliciously engineered a spectacular plane crash and killed 150 people. Suicidal thoughts can be a hallmark of depression, but mass murder is another beast entirely.
I’ve given this passage a lot of thought. Was Lubitz an evil genius? I take exception to the conclusion that his actions were in any way “malicious”. Looking back at my own personal experience of suicide and others’ recollections of their suicide attempts, I don’t think that he was even thinking about the other people. Mass murder was not his motive: it was simple self-annihilation and the airplane was the handy tool by which he engineered it. I find it no different from the bottle of pills, the knife, or the gun that others use to bring about their own demise. For Lubitz to do what he did, I aver, the passengers in the plane had to become invisible to his mind. He locked the door. He set the controls downward. He breathed deep so as to calm and steel himself for the resolution of the act. He felt his body hurtling towards the mountain. He was alone.
In my experience, depression numbs. It distorts the facts and alters our decisions. I would not want to be in a depressive state with a gun in my hand. I might not just take my life, but I might also extend my reasoning to my wife who I would not want to condemn to a life of loneliness without me. Or I might use the gun to shoot anyone who tried to stop me from using it in a struggle. All this does not point to malevolence, but to despair.
It is wise, at this point, to turn to the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:
How discover the agent’s motive and whether he desired death itself when he formed his resolve, or had some other purpose? Intent is too intimate a thing to be more than approximately interpreted by another. It even escapes self-observation. How often we mistake the true reasons for our acts! We constantly explain acts due to petty feelings or blind routine by generous passions or lofty considerations.
Besides, in general, an act cannot be defined by the end sought by the actor, for an identical system of behavior may be adjustable to too many different ends without altering its nature. Indeed, if the intention of self-destruction alone constituted suicide, the name suicide could not be given to facts which, despite apparent differences, are fundamentally identical with those always called suicide and which could not be otherwise described without discarding the term. The soldier facing certain death to save his regiment does not wish to die, and yet is he not as much the author of his own death as the manufacturer or merchant who kills himself to avoid bankruptcy? This holds true for the martyr dying for his faith, the mother sacrificing herself for her child,etc. Whether death is accepted merely as an unfortunate consequence, but inevitable given the purpose, or is actually itself sought and desired, in either case the person renounces existence, and the various methods of doing so can be only varieties of a single class. They possess too many essential similarities not to be combined in one generic expression, subject to distinction as the species of the genus thus established. Of course, in common terms, suicide is preeminently the desperate act of one who does not care to live. But actually life is none the less abandoned because one desires it at the moment of renouncing it; and there are common traits clearly essential to all acts by which a living being thus renounces the possession presumably most precious of all. Rather, the diversity of motives capable of actuating these resolves can give rise only to secondary differences. Thus, when resolution entails certain sacrifice of life, scientifically this is suicide….
Skomorowsky’s intention is, of course, a noble one. Lubitz’s death has once again invoked the specter of the mentally ill maniac. Already the media has its audience looking at the co-worker in the office suffering from burnout and wondering if he is about to “go postal” with his letter opener and his stapler. Declaring that his action was not suicide and therefore not likely to be the act of a depressed person removes the stigma, but probably misdefines the act. What I have learned in my years of dealing with high-functioning sufferers of bipolar disorder and depression is that unhappy people — like Tolstoy’s unhappy families — are each unhappy in their own way. Lubitz was an outlier — a mere blip of a hundredth or a thousandth of a percentage point, but I feel for the reasons I have cited above that despite the spectacular nature of his death, his exercise of it was well within the possibilities of the disease. What we cannot do is generalize from this tragedy caused by one man, erasing the character and the reality of the millions who live nonviolently with melancholy.
That man weeping in the corner is not Lubitz. Please. Go talk to him.