Having Depression Doesn't Make You a Murderer

Germanwings flight 9252 and Andreas Lubitz have drawn attention to depression and its possible link to murder-suicides. This has become a controversial topic amongst psychologists, with many against this somewhat unfounded assumption.

So is there sufficient data to support the claim that depression triggers murder thoughts and actions?

Insufficient research has been conducted on the correlation between depression and murder-suicides. Some of the stats indicate that of the 19 million Americans who have chronic depression, only between 0.1% - 0.3% commit murder-suicides, with this rate remaining fairly stable. Other research suggests 2% - 5%. And, for those who do commit murder-suicides, depression alone cannot explain it, with complex and multiple factors contributing towards their actions. These include what their relationship was to the victim or victims, any past or current substance abuse, revenge fantasies, criminal history, and bullying, to name some examples.

We also know that people with depression and suicide ideation do not typically show signs of murder-symptoms. One of the official diagnostic criteria for depression is that the person has thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or a suicide attempt or plan to commit suicide. Notice that the criterion focuses on the self, not on others.

Murder-suicides aside, depression is the top cause of disability, and, aside from heart disease, accounts for the most premature deaths. More lives are lost to depression than to cancer and AIDS combined. In South Africa, the national prevalence of major depression is 9.7%. Other regional studies suggest prevalence rates of between 25% and 27%. 

A common theme experienced by most depression sufferers is access to support and the stigma people with depression receive. The effects of stigmatisation has a significant impact; in particular, traditional beliefs amongst some cultures in South Africa have added stigmatisation associated with the use of formal or western mental health services 

Instead of creating more stigmas, we need to focus our efforts on eliminating or reducing stigma. The media sensationalising murder-suicides doesn't help. Instead, the emphasis should be on what is clearly missing - the lack of routine risk assessments not only in the aviation industry, but also across all areas prone to murder-suicides, such as workplaces, schools, and public service companies.

Trying to explain what happened on flight 9252 is useful to a point, but perhaps the most important thing the psychological community should prioritise is how we can prevent something like this happening again in the future across all industries. Not doing this may be a significant gamble to life and those affected.