Mental Illness & Public Safety

This week's air tragedy in France was apparently the result of an unrecognized or unreported mental illness in one of the pilots; that failure led to the death of the afflicted individual and 149 other passengers and crew members.  While the perpetrator had sought medical attention for his condition, its ramifications were clearly not dealt with in an open, thoughtful and honest manner; initial reports suggest that airline executives were unaware of his diagnosis.

Similar tragic episodes have occurred in the military, in other industries and in society as a whole.  Due to our inability to accept the nature of mental illness, on a par with heart disease, diabetes and other human maladies, we are less willing to openly discuss its varied presentations or report our observations to mental health professionals.  We don't want to stigmatize relatives or friends with such a diagnosis and suspect that it might jeopardize their career;  unfortunately, this fear is too often confirmed by the actions of employers.  Finally, patient privacy laws may get in the way of effective communication; too often, public safety is ignored.

Mental illness is a biochemical, neuropsychiatric disorder; it is not a personal weakness, a demonic possession or the manifestation of mythological forces and, in most cases, it can be effectively treated with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.  Yet, if not recognized or properly addressed it may lead to tragic consequences for the patient and others.  As a society, we must commit ourselves to dealing with mental illness in a humane, thoughtful and effective manner without jeopardizing the safety of family, friends and the public at large.  (see also Human Society & Mental Illness)