Suicide at 38,000 feet?

Story highlights

  • Bill Schmitz: Germanwings crash seems to have been caused by copilot's suicide, but many died, so some reluctant to call it that
  • He says suicide is international public health crisis. Downplaying it keeps us from funding research and preventing another such tragedy

Bill Schmitz is a clinical psychologist and president of the American Association of Suicidology. Follow him on twitter @DrBillSchmitz. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Suicide has made the news again, even though we won't call it that. Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed a plane into the Alps, taking his own life and the lives of 149 others.

Authorities have ruled out terrorism and other nefarious motivations for this horrible action. But for some reason, although suicide appears evident at this time, some are refusing to call it that.
Bill Schmitz Jr.
Unfortunately, when you can't even call a spade a spade, the bottom line is you will never be able to do something about the real problem. If we want to prevent tragedies like the Germanwings crash, we must first be able to call it what it is: another tragic suicide with horrifying collateral damage.
    In the coming days and weeks we will hear the media calling for more regulation of the airline industry, likely to be followed by some important congressional hearings to prevent similar tragedies, especially here in the States. However, the reality is, this likely WAS a suicide (and in the United States alone more than 41,000 people commit suicide each year, which would average out to 112 every day). Understanding the heart of a tragedy like the Germanwings crash means we must better understand and respond to suicide as an international public health crisis.
    Contrary to what Carsten Spohr, the CEO of Lufthansa, stated ("If a person kills himself and 149 others, the word 'suicide' should be replaced with another word") I would argue that if you take suicide out of this discussion you will entirely fail at addressing the root cause of this event, and the many other suicide-homicide events that occur.
    Aside from the setting and location, the suicide of Andreas Lubitz is not significantly different from the suicide bomber last week during rush hour in Kabul, Afghanistan, who killed seven people and injured an additional 36. Lubitz is also not significantly different from Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut, shooter who killed his mother and 26 people, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, before killing himself. While these tragedies were all very public, and extremely painful to larger communities, they were still suicides.
    Fortunately, suicide is a subject that doctors and other mental health professions do know about and are diligently working to reduce. Of course, in the United States, for one, the funding for suicide-related research is pathetic in comparison to that for the other 20 leading causes of death. The National Institutes of Health spends nearly three times more money on inflammatory bowel disease than it does on suicide.
    If you want to reduce the number of these suicide-homicide events, then a concerted effort -- with funding -- must be directed to the heart of the matter: mental health care that will prevent someone from taking his or her own life. Without a suicide, there can be no suicide-homicide event. Three days after the Germanwings crash, Lufthansa and the other German airlines created policy changes for their flights so now two authorized people will be required in the cockpit at all times.
    I'm totally in favor of making changes to improve cockpit safety. But such a change by itself will do nothing to address this event as what it was, and will lead to no substantial change in addressing its cause and preventing another situation like it.
    This was a suicide, this was a tragedy; we can either learn from it, or not.