Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Of course we'd blame cancer for plane crash deaths

Discusses suicide and stigma of illness.

Alistair Campbell wrote an article condemning media speculation about the mental health of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who, it would seem, deliberately crashed a plane into a mountain, killing 150 people on board. Campbell's article is entitled
Would we be 'blaming' cancer for the deaths of those people who perished in the Alps?
It has been widely shared in my circles, but I keep thinking, "Yeah, we would."

If the guy had cancer, there would have quickly developed a narrative in which, raging against his fate and embittered against the world, the chap decided to end it all and take everyone else with him. This is the basis for almost every disabled super-villain in comics and movies. When they're not warming our hearts, we expect people with physical illness to be angry, bitter and to love life and other people a whole lot less.

The media treatment of depression is significantly worse because it treats this diagnosis - a very commonplace, highly variable condition - as if that explains everything. The guy was (probably) depressed. What more do we need to know?

With cancer, the speculators would have had to expand on that - "He obviously thought the cancer was coming back" or "He was angry that he would die in his twenties while other people would experience all kinds of things he would never get to".

There wouldn't have been headlines which implied that people with cancer should never be allowed in the cockpit of an aeroplane (or presumably, in any of the many positions of great responsibility people with various illnesses regularly occupy). But narratives in which we use physical illness and impairment to explain violence and self-destruction are not uncommon.

Way too often, in describing some oppression, a minority is identified who would never receive such ill-treatment. There were a lot of articles about cripping-up - non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, usually to overblown critical acclaim - following Eddie Redmaine's Oscar win for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Many of these articles stated that blackface is a thing of the dim and distant past; you'd never see a white actor play a black character, so why are disabled people so oppressed?  Of course, the corpse of blackface continues to twitch, while white or mixed race actors are routinely cast in historical or fictional roles whose time and geography would suggest black or Asian characters. Meanwhile other groups - like transgender people - get to see themselves represented by their own people even less often.

The mental illness vs. physical illness nonsense is especially disparaging because it demonstrates what an extremely low bar mental health campaigns tend to reach for. They want mental illness to be treated just like physical illness. Being more ambitious, I'd like mental illness to be treated as a morally neutral personal experience, not a symbol or a story, a quirk or a weakness. Many people are able to see it as just that. Culturally, we have a way to go.

Sometimes, people are too sick to work. All kinds of illness, all kinds of work. This doesn't always mean such people don't come into work. They may do so because:

  • We live in a culture which treats paid employment as the minimum criteria for a decent and valuable human being. 
  • We live in a culture which treats all illness, but especially mental illness, as personal weakness.
  • Folk are afraid to disclose illness to employers, especially mental illness.
  • Employers often don't take illness seriously, especially mental illness.
  • Employers are often freaked out by illness, especially mental illness.
  • People don't always know how sick they are.
  • Other people, including doctors, don't always know how sick a person is.

In other words, even those who are convinced that a diagnosis of depression poses a significant risk need to care about the further stigmatization of mental illness.  And all other illness, because our culture encourages folk to push themselves and take risks where physical or mental collapse could lead to disaster.

However, depression is entirely inadequate as an explanation for Andreas Lubnitz's actions. Even in the most severe suicidal depression, there's a huge difference between being careless of other people's safety (e.g. stepping in front of a train, driving into traffic) and purposely harming others (e.g. crashing the plane you're piloting).


e said...

Thanks for this...I've been trying to reconnect to some disability bloggers and most are scarce. Good to know you are still here. I cannot access my old blog as Full Tilt any longer.

Full Tilt said...

Okay. actually, my Full tilt blog has been located and there is a new posting...Thanks.

Full Tilt said...

What's up?