People who crash ‘planes and throw children off bridges…

As I stare into another stunning blue autumnal sky and watch the latest in a never-ending line of passenger jets make its final turn into Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, I am forced to reflect on another saddening week in the news around the world…  Whether it’s more violence in sectarian conflicts, a co-pilot bringing down an aeroplane full of innocent travellers over the French Alps, farewelling another Melbourne teenager murdered in broad daylight or a Brisbane motorist taking his own life after accidentally killing a pedestrian, one thing’s for certain:  none of us will ever know the whole story.

Two remedies come to mind for our inability to live harmoniously, both fairly straightforward and inexpensive to implement:

  • More listening; less judging
  • Give us the right to die

In 2009, I wrote an opinion piece entitled “Defending the Indefensible” after Melbourne man, Arthur Freeman, stopped his car on the West Gate Bridge and threw his five-year-old daughter, Darcy, over the edge to her death. Her two brothers watched it happen, the elder boy trying to stop his father. I wrote this article because my partner at the time was going through a similar custody battle and I saw first-hand the effect this process had on him, unable to fathom the legacy handed to those boys and their mother.

This particular suburban dad felt like the victim of a conspiracy between vindictive ex-wife, family members, government agencies and societal pressure, all ganging up on one responsible, child-support-paying, peaceful man who simply wanted a continuing relationship with his child after a “no fault” divorce (What a misnomer this is!!). Thankfully, his emotional spectrum was narrow and not influenced by existing mental health concerns, and these days he enjoys life with his well-adjusted 23-year-old son.

However, let’s throw a propensity for mental illness into the equation, and here’s our disaster waiting to happen… When one’s emotional spectrum is broadened or skewed by a lethal combination of genetic predisposition, life’s challenges, artificial stimulants and/or the damaging acts by people in positions of trust, the onslaught on one’s sanity may lead to uncharacteristic and occasionally catastrophic behaviour.

The gun lobbyists are right when they say that guns don’t kill people. Yet put guns in the wrong hands, and quite clearly people die, which is exactly why access to dangerous weapons ought to be controlled a whole lot more tightly. Until we are big enough and brave enough to face into the scourge of mental illness and act responsibly towards it, all we can do is fix the symptoms and reduce the probability of more horrific tragedies.

What many people don’t seem to accept is that, just like any one of us may succumb to cancer, diabetes, dementia or a variety of other physical ailments, an equal number of us run the risk of mental illness in all its myriad forms. Incalculable permutations of inherited, environmental and self-inflicted factors may combine in an apparent random attack on our wellbeing. And as with sickness of the body, our individual composition determines the strength and duration of each bout.

Good parents know that no matter what silly or naughty behaviour led to a mishap that results in their children bawling their eyes out, the most important thing is to cuddle them and make them feel safe and loved in the heat of the moment. The lectures and punishments can come later. That’s how resilience is built, and it’s no different in adulthood (except perhaps for the liberal application of healing kisses and emergency dispensation of chocolate 😉 ).

In the absence of resilience, we lack the ability to roll with the changes without resorting to anti-social behaviour, whether that’s an angry outburst or retiring into our shell, passive aggression or crashing ‘planes into mountains. But to admit to such a lack of resilience – permanent or temporary – is most often viewed as weakness of character rather than a bout of sickness.

More listening; less judging. If we each were to take the time to discover and tolerate others’ opinions and to understand their situations, rather than imposing our own set of values and circumstances on what seems like an irrational reaction, we would significantly reduce the terrible human collateral damage like Darcy Freeman, her brothers and the Germanwings passengers who never reached Düsseldorf.

In today’s judgmental society, what might the outcome be at Arthur Freeman’s custody hearing if he “came out” as suffering from a mental illness? Probably even fewer days with his children, and potentially none at all…

If Andreas Lupitz, the German co-pilot, had ‘phoned in that morning to say, “I’m feeling particularly unhinged today, do you mind if I stay in bed?”, how would this admission have affected his career?

After nearly forty years of discrimination, ridicule and closed doors, my main reason for publishing the “A Life Singular” serial is to encourage openness, tolerance and a greater awareness of depression-related illnesses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety. I am so fed up of hearing such dismissive phrases as “Get over it,” “It’s not that bad,” “Who died?” “Pull yourself together,” “You shouldn’t feel that way,” “Get out of the doldrums,” and so on…

Being outspoken about mental illness in the workplace has led to discrimination, sidelining and being overlooked for promotion because the assumption is that being depressed reduces my capacity to perform my job. The fact that I think the opposite is true is not even open for debate. Managers typically run away from the issue and ignore any hostility rather than speak openly about why their staff’s resilience is under attack. I don’t own a gun, but boy, do I wish I had one sometimes!

Everyone is different, which is something that should be celebrated! What a boring world it would be if we were all the same… Instead of criticising these differences, we should check them out. We might be missing something. Tolerance and compassion are beautiful qualities that evolve through opening our minds and seeing things from other perspectives.

How many times do we see grown men reduced to tears when their football team loses, or watch them punch the wall or each other? For me, football, schmootball… Meh, as the teenagers say LOL. WTF. Pardon? But if I see a person in a position of trust abusing someone, I will be reduced to tears and may even punch a wall, because I’ve been there more times than I care to remember. I know how it feels and how long its effects linger.

Give us the right to die. In my own situation, as someone who is “dying to die” but having promised my parents that I will outlive them, I may well have been tempted away from Remedy 2 if Remedy 1 had been in place. I have suicidal thoughts every single day, so can well understand the psyche of someone as desperate as the Germanwings co-pilot, even though I don’t condone his method of ending his life.

Although more than 150 people are now dead because of this one man’s desire to die, at least he chose a way that killed them almost instantly. Much better than slowly asphyxiating in freezing sea water or burning to death before rescuers can reach them, unlike some of the terrorism enacted by suicide bombers.

For those of us whose depression or other debilitating mental symptoms have destroyed our resilience to such an extent that death is the only appealing option, I truly hope that some day the right to die will be recognised along with the right to live.

Whatever our personal beliefs about abortion, for example, we have accepted the proposition of deciding an unborn child’s fate, and we allow our police and armed forces to kill opponents who threaten others’ safety. We are also slowly becoming more tolerant to voluntary euthanasia for terminally-ill patients, providing a pain-free and dignified end to a physically-impaired but rational person’s life.

Why does this right not extend to a mentally-impaired but rational person? If Remedy 2 were available to people like me, there would be far fewer innocent casualties when that fatal “last straw” forces us into drastic action.

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