The recent tragic Germanwings crash has, like many of spectacular suicides before it, hurtled the subjects of suicide and mental illness into the limelight. The horror we all feel for Andreas Lubitz and the 150 onboard is justified. Our repeated shock when confronted with suicide is less warranted.
Suicide is an epidemic. Though we only hear of the most dramatic — of those who jump into crocodile pits to be devoured, those who hurl themselves from the Golden Gate bridge, the Kurt Cobains, the Robin Williamses – there are thousands who choose to kill themselves every year.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that in 2013, one person committed suicide every 12.8 minutes. Though faceless and nameless, one person will have hanged, shot, drowned or poisoned themselves by the time you finish reading this. During your lunch hour, four people will have jumped in front of a train, filled a garage with carbon monoxide or exsanguinated. During an eight-hour slumber, 37 sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers or mothers will have left their families in bewildered, perpetual pain.
Suicide is often (though not always) the result of mental illness, which remains a shameful taboo. News outlets have been quick to staple the label of ‘depression’ to Lubitz’s final act. The New Republic dismissed alternative explanations for his actions and instead opted to state, “medications for “severe depression” were also discovered in Lubitz’s residence”. CNN declared in one headline, “Report: Antidepressants found at home of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz”, as though prescription medication were akin to a blood-stained knife.
We engage in a vicious, paradoxical cycle. We are horrified by suicide and see it as the worst possible outcome. We demonize the diseases that cause it. We shun the people suffering from said diseases. We make it shameful to speak out or seek help. We encourage suffering in silence. We encourage getting sicker. We encourage suicide.
Lubitz’s actions are beyond understanding, but the catch-all diagnosis of ‘depression’ is insufficent. Depression alone does not a mass murderer make, nor is it the sole cause of the deaths of the 150 passengers on flight 9525.
For decades, sufferers have made admirable efforts to explain the despair of depression and mental illness, though art and books and poetry. Most recently, for the internet age, games are sprouting up to try and translate the bleakness of mental illness for those who have never experienced it.
Actual Sunlight, a game created by Will O’Neill, is the product of a lifetime of suffering. In a macabre Choose Your Own Adventure, the game follows a somewhat unlikeable protagonist through a string on unremarkable days, the ultimate choice being “Go to the roof and jump off.” The options presented are “yes” and “yes”. In Depression Quest, an interactive story set to a soundtrack of heavy, melancholy piano chords on repeat, offers the player the limited options a person with depression has day-to-day, for lack of energy, lack of self-esteem or the simple inability to get out of bed. Both show the banality of depression, and of suicide. It is not an explosion in the Alps — it is a long, quiet and desperate struggle.
Mental illness is horrifying, but not for the danger it presents to others, but the danger it presents to oneself. We should not be concerned for those surrounding the mentally ill, but for the mentally ill themselves, and for the systems, society and culture that condone their unspoken ostracism.
It is understandable to search for something to blame when confronted with tragedy and loss. It is reprehensible to place that blame squarely on the shoulders of the illnesses from which many suffer, and paint the gravely ill as dangerous or criminals.
The story here is not Lubitz’s illness or even his alleged suicide. The story is the incomprehensible loss of 150 people. The story is that there is no one reason that can explain what happened in the Alps. The story is that what happened is impossible to understand. The story is not that simple.
Suicide is not a story.
Header photo by flickr user caruba, licensed under Creative Commons.