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Depression, suicide and the workplace – Q&A

Expert opinions on the potential link between depression and the suspected mass murder-suicide of a Germanwings co-pilot who flew an Airbus into the French Alps Tuesday, killing all 150 people on board:

Q: What is the link between depression and suicide?

– Depression is the primary risk factor for suicide. It is the condition most often diagnosed in people who then go on to commit suicide. The more severe the depression, the higher the suicide risk. – Philippe Courtet, a psychiatrist specialising in suicide.

Q: Does depression hold a risk of violence to others?

– Among cases of murder-suicide in general, the rate of previously diagnosed depression varies from 40-60 percent, depending on the context. (Most cases of murder-suicide involve a man and his spouse). In the vast majority of cases of depression, suicide is the main risk, not violence. So, depression is not in itself a sufficient explanation for murder-suicide, but early detection and adequate treatment might reduce the risk. – Paul Keedwell, Cardiff University psychiatrist and mood disorder specialist.

Q: Should depression disqualify one from certain jobs?

– Depression is a treatable disease, and the presence of a depressive illness in the past does not necessarily tell us anything about someone’s current mental health. – Seena Fazel, professor of forensic psychiatry at Oxford University.

– There is certainly no reason why people with a history of depression cannot go on to perform well in high-level occupations, and there is no evidence that people with depression are likely to be more violent or wish to take others with them in suicide. – Ali Haggett, a University of Exeter medical historian specialising in mental illness.

– In employment law terms alone, an employer would have to be very careful: if they tried to fire someone or change their job or reallocate them elsewhere based on a medical condition (depression), they would be on shaky ground. – Alan Redman, an occupational psychologist who designs psychometric tests.

Q: How is depression dealt with in the workplace?

– It is often difficult for employees to disclose their illness. Many companies ostracise employees suffering from depression. The pilot may have withheld his condition for fear that it would mean the end of his career. – Courtet.

Q: So, what is the solution?

I guess if I were consulting on this one and trying to prevent a similar incident in future, I would recommend changing the job itself. So, rather than change the individuals being hired for the role, rather than trying to monitor and measure them even more carefully while they’re doing the job, think about the job itself.

There are some very easy, practical things that can change:

– Don’t have only one person in the flight deck.

– You can look at hours, you can look at shift structures, there are lots of changes you can make to the nature to the job itself.

There’s lots of research which shows that shift patterns have a big impact on emotional health and wellbeing at work. Nights for example are not great for us physiologically or psychologically.

Obviously there are rules and regulations in place in aviation as to the number of hours pilots can fly… But I would imagine if it was a budget airline with quite fast turnarounds, it is probably a more stressful job… – Redman.