Germanwings crash: One year on

Did the Germanwings crash have long-term effects on the stigmatization of mental illness in Germany?

In the weeks and months after the Germanwings plane crash, the media extensively reported on the connection between the pilot’s severe mental illness and the tragic event. Concerned that this coverage would increase the stigmatization of people with mental illnesses, Professor Georg Schomerus, from the Psychiatry Department at the University of Greifswald, ran a study to compare attitudes from before and after the plane crash. He talks to us about his findings.

ResearchGate: You studied the effect that media coverage shortly after the Germanwings crash had on mental illness stigma. What were your main findings?

Georg Schomerus: We presented the participants in the study with a fictive person who suffered from a severe mental illness. After the Germanwings plane crash, more people considered this person to be unpredictable, and slightly fewer people agreed with the statement that most people will suffer a similar level of distress at some stage of their life. The most important finding, however, was that reactions in other areas didn’t change at all in comparison to a study we did before the Germanwings crash. For example, the participants in the study were not more scared of the person, nor were they more skeptical about having personal contact with them.

RG: To what extent did these results meet your expectations?

Schomerus: We feared that we would see similar results to studies done after the attacks on politicians Schäuble and Lafontaine in the 1990s. In those studies, respondents displayed a significantly higher stigmatization of people with mental illnesses. However, we were glad to see that this did not occur after the Germanwings crash. Although we did see some changes, they were limited. It appears that the public is no longer as quick to generalize about these kinds of events as they were 25 years ago.

RG: It’s now one year on from the Germanwings crash. Do you think the crash had any long-term effects on how the German public views mental illness and depression in particular?

Schomerus: Although media reports do significantly influence the opinions of the population, studies have shown that individual events only have a short-term effect on people’s attitudes. Therefore, I don’t anticipate that the crash will have a long-term effect on the way Germans view mental illness.

RG: What other events or factors increase the stigmatization of mental illness?

Schomerus: The most important factor is experience. If you have personal contact with people who have mental illnesses, you’re much less likely to stigmatize them. What’s also important is our preconceptions of mental illness. It has been proven that an emphasis on the biological causes of mental illness leads to greater stigmatization, as this suggests that sufferers are fundamentally different from healthy people. On the other hand, people are less likely to stigmatize mental illness when psychological health and psychological illness is presented on the one continuum.

RG: Based on your research, how should the media report on negative events that are linked with mental health issues?

Schomerus: Scandalizing and generalizing mental illness should be avoided, as this results in people with mental illnesses being discriminated against as a group. It’s important to present information about the support services and treatments that are available. However, this is already being done in an exemplary manner in many media reports.

RG: Based on your research, what are the best methods to reduce mental illness stigma?

Schomerus: We need to make it clear that mental illnesses are very normal – within their lifetime, everyone either personally experiences or knows someone who has experienced a mental illness. If it was more common to talk openly about these illnesses, they would lose much of their horror. I have a lot of respect for people who talk about their own experience with mental illness, and I don’t think any anti-stigmatization campaign by the media could achieve what this does.

RG: In what ways has the stigmatization of mental illness in Germany changed over the past 20 years?

Schomerus: There have been a couple of developments. Overall, the attitude towards people with schizophrenia has sadly gotten worse – people are now less willing to have personal contact with someone with schizophrenia than they were 25 years ago. However, this trend has flattened out in recent years and we hope it will soon improve. In regards to depression, we’ve only seen minimal changes. One improvement we have seen is that funding the treatment of depression is now a higher priority for the public. We’ve seen hardly any development in how people view alcoholics – in order for this to change we’ll first have to convince people that excluding sufferers is unjust and very counter-productive.

RG: From your research, have you found any differences in the ways that German people view mental illness as opposed to the way people from other countries do?

Schomerus: No, attitudes are similar to other Western industrialized nations. What’s interesting is when we compare Germany to other cultures – the way mental illnesses are viewed often reflects the core values of a culture. Comparing studies from around the world allows us to learn something about both foreign cultures and our own.

RG: What are you working on next?

Schomerus: We want to look more closely at how addictions are stigmatized. We’re also interested in why many people find it hard to see their symptoms as a sign for mental illness and then seek help – we expect that stigma has something to do with this.

Image courtesy of BriYYZ.