Misuse of the term “Depression” in the Media

The tragic event that recently killed the passengers of Germanwings flight A 320 – which departed from Barcelona and never arrived in Dusseldorf – and its author, pilot Andreas Lubitz, raises many questions.

One of these, not the first in importance but not the last, is the reflection on the news disclosed by some media that the suicide-homicide pilot suffered from depression .

I do not find it strange to mention a psychiatric diagnosis , which is legitimate and unfortunately concerns a situation that is part of the things of the world.

What worries me is the lightness, far from naive, with which the media sometimes approach the theme of “Depression” and the neglect in predicting the consequences that are determined in society.

It is not meant to be a general attack on the media or the journalistic class made up of many decent people. In the meantime, I would start from the usefulness of the formulation of the diagnosis in the psychiatric field.

Diagnosis is an important component of the communication that is established between the psychiatrist and patients or colleagues. Diagnosis is essential to make logical decisions regarding which intervention to undertake or if it is appropriate not to intervene at all.

The diagnosis reassures the patient that his situation is not unique, that it is not something strange, mysterious and inexplicable; that there is a wealth of knowledge that can bring some form of help. Diagnosis can reduce feelings of guilt or blame. It can overcome vague concepts such as that of “weakness of character”.

Diagnosis can help you accept that you are “different” or that you don’t function like most people. It can reduce feelings of shame and low self-esteem. It can improve the dialogue between professionals and the public administration regarding the necessary supports and services. It can connect people who have the same problem. And so on.

Despite all these usefulness, any sufficiently cultured psychiatrist is always well aware of the limitations of diagnostic categories .

He knows the importance of looking at the person and the situation beyond diagnosis. He knows well that the diagnosis itself never says anything if it is not enriched with information regarding the subject’s personal history, the events that accompanied the decompensation phase, the type of symptoms, the severity and level of functional impairment, the level of of adherence to therapeutic paths.

So for the psychiatrist mentioned above, the diagnosis of “Depression” does not mean much if not accompanied by other information regarding the personality structure, the way in which treatment is followed, the presence or absence of suicidal ideation – we know well that all depressed people think about suicide – the presence of psychotic symptoms, the number of seizures they have had during their lifetime, the levels of functioning in the intercritical phases, the presence or absence of anxiety spectrum disorders, the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Just to name a few.

Depression does not exist but the person suffering from Depression and in any case we always talk about a disorder that, if well treated, can lead to a favorable prognosis with an excellent percentage of positive responses. The cases considered serious or resistant to therapies are always a minority compared to the forms that respond positively to treatments.

If so, is it the same for a psychiatrist for the average listener or reader? It is unlikely. It is much more probable that in society, seeing the term Depression associated with serious news stories , the thought, dangerous and false, creeps in that the Depression itself leads to committing the serious facts reported by the Media. In the meantime, the result is an increase in mistrust towards the subjects really affected by this pathology and the stigma that comes out reinforced.

There is the anguish of those who stand next to a person suffering from depression or of the person himself at the mere thought that they could commit horrible facts just like those reported by the media, up to the real development of obsessive fears of aggression . This can lead to refusing contact with a specialist and treatment for not being told “You have a depressive disorder”.

Unfortunately, the problem is not negligible numerically if we consider that the World Health Organization predicts that in 2020 Depression will be among the most widespread mental illnesses in the world and after cardiovascular disease the most frequent disease in general.

For the media to say that Andreas Lubitz was suffering from a severe form of mental illness, instead of speaking improperly and simplistically about Depression, would it have limited their duty or right to information?

The question is rhetorical because we know that the answer is: no. But it is known that talk of Depression intrigues the public, much more than a vague form of severe mental disorder, and this leads to an increase in the audience or some copy sold.

There is no descriptive superficiality, no carelessness, on the part of the media that have adopted this term but a precise intent which, in order to achieve the set objectives, ignores the ethical and practical consequences that derive from it.

It has already happened with other news stories, which had nothing to do with the Depression, and let’s get ready for similar cases that will happen.

This too is a form of crime that kills mature reflection on what Depression is and what can really derive from it.

Yet more and more often the media continue to label everything as Depression. “Cui prodest” – “Who benefits” – asked Seneca. Certainly this does not benefit depressed people, family members and the evolution of society.

For the curious, Seneca’s complete sentence was: “Cui prodest Scelus, is fecit”, “The crime has been committed by the one who benefits”.


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