Many of us will have felt shock and disbelief at the news of the recent plane crash. As news filters through about Mr Lubitz mental health, comments on social media have turned to anger. Questions that asked how did this happen, have now become more critical – how can this be allowed to happen? For those who know little about depression, the focus of this question is towards Mr Lubitz and his actions. We cannot know for sure the thought process that led him to take the lives of his passengers as well as his own. What we are beginning to see is a person with depression – a serious mental illness that changes perceptions. It seems that he was seeking medical attention, but continued to work against advice.
This at least, we can understand. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that views long term illness, particularly a mental illness such as depression, and disability as a weakness. Employers, although mindful of their responsibility for (mental) health and wellbeing, perpetuate the notion that a healthy employee is economically more valuable. Employees are competing with colleagues not only on performance, but on their strength of character to shoulder stress and sometimes illness. This is in spite of compelling evidence to argue that a supportive workforce culture yields greater economic benefits.
What is clearly evident from this tragic accident is that much more needs to be invested in employee (mental) health and wellbeing. More than this, we need to change the culture to help employees feel able to discuss their illness without prejudice, and to promote a culture of support within the workplace rather than competition (#HeyAreYouOK?).
It surprises me that, when talking about suicide prevention training for key staff and suicide postvention training for the workplace community, I hear “yes, we already have stress management training”. There is an obvious lack of understanding about the relationship between stress and distress (extreme stress) – distress is the precursor to suicidal thinking, whether there is an underlying depression or not. Skills training for key staff is essential to identify those who are in distress and to then confidently and competently conduct a risk assessment and safety plan. This should be included in the workplace occupational health policy as standard alongside ‘support to work’ and ‘support in work’ schemes. Only then will we have learned from this tragic accident.
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