Why the media reports on Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz and mental health are so unhelpful

This week the world has been horrified by the Germanwings plane crash that killed 150 people in the French Alps.

That horror was compounded on Thursday with the news that the 28-year-old German co-pilot had "intentionally" flown the Airbus A320 into a mountainside.

The exact motive for Andreas Lubitz's actions is still unknown, but that hasn't stopped the media from racing to conclusions.

Many reports have speculated about Lubitz's mental health after one of his former classmates told journalists that he had suffered from depression.

How the story was approached

When revealing the identity of Lubitz on Thursday, French investigator Brice Robin was immediately questioned about the co-pilot's ethnicity.

Robin replied: "He was a German national and I don't know his ethnic background. He is not listed as a terrorist, if that is what you are insinuating."

Failing to find a label there, the press then jumped on rumours about Lubitz's mental health, perhaps best summed up by this round-up of front pages:

Or this "Madman in the cockpit" effort from the Sun:

While in Scotland:

Jumping to conclusions

News emerged that Lubitz had taken a prolonged and "unexplained" break from flight training in 2009 in which he worked as a flight attendant. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that Lubitz's former classmates said this was because of "burnout syndrome", which was presented as the reason he decided to kill 149 people.

However, Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, explained that the break in training was "not unusual" and that Lubitz had passed all tests before returning. "His flying abilities were flawless," he added.

You can read i100.co.uk's guide to the testing pilots undergo here.

Why this is so unhelpful

Reacting to the media's coverage of the story on Friday morning, mental health charities Mind, Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness released a statement explaining that speculation linking the tragedy to Lubitz's history of mental health has been "overly simplistic".

Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate - but assumptions about risk shouldn't be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.

  • Mind, Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness statement

At this stage, we simply do not know the reason a 28-year-old pilot decided to crash a plane into a mountainside and kill 149 other people. What we do know is that media stories insinuating links between depression and mass murder are unhelpful and, as the mental health charities explain, "risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year".

More: What we do and do not know about Andreas Lubitz

More: The psychological tests pilots have to go through before flying

Comment: Question Andreas Lubitz's mental stability, but stop demonising the depressed