French prosecutor Brice Robin divulged on Thursday new details in his criminal investigation into the Germanwings flight 9525 collision in the French Alps. According to Robin, Germanwings’ co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who committed suicide and killed 149 people aboard the plane by crashing it into a mountain on March 24 of this year, was taking Mirtazapine, a potentially dangerous antidepressant.
Previous reports surrounding the investigation of the crash indicated that Lubitz was dealing with severe psychological problems, a fact which he intentionally withheld from his Germanwings employer and colleagues. It was reported that Lubitz had been taking antidepressants, however little information has been released to the public about which antidepressants he had been taking and the potentially significant role they might have played in Lubitz’s mental state, which directly resulted in his successful suicide mission.
Robin further stated that Lubitz was convinced that he was going blind. Approximately two weeks prior to his suicide, in an email Lubitz had written to one of his doctors, he expressed that he was so worried about his vision, that it had become impossible for him to sleep, so he doubled his dosage of Mirtazapine hoping it would enable him to sleep.
The public has not been well-enough informed concerning the dangers of antidepressants, or this antidepressant in particular. The “Mirtazapine” entry on the MedlinePlus website comes with a severe warning. Most pertinent to Andreas Lubitz’s suicide and the lost lives of flight 9525, is the fact that when taking Mirtazapine, and other antidepressants, unexpected changes may occur in a person’s mental health. For example, the person may become suicidal, particularly in the first weeks of taking the drug and any time the drug dosage is increased or decreased.
The warning continues by saying that either the patient who is taking the drug, his/her family, or caregiver should contact a doctor immediately if the patient experiences or displays renewed depression or an increase in depression, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks, aggressive behavior, acting without thinking, agitation, frenzied abnormal excitement, severe restlessness, or thinks about, plans, or tries to harm or kill him/herself. The flaw in this logic, however, is that only the person on the medication can know many of these things and one cannot rely on that person to take the necessary precautions, precisely because psychological maladies such as depression are most often incapacitating in a way that makes this warning ineffective unless the person in question actually has people close to him/her who will take the necessary actions. It is now known that Lubitz planned his suicide mission and “rehearsed” an unusual descent with the Germanwings airplane on the first leg of the route; this demonstrates the futility of warning the person who is under the influence of the drug.
The Mirtazapine page on MedlinePlus also warns that the drug causes drowsiness and warns against operating machinery or driving a car while under the influence of the medication. Considering that Lubitz increased his Mirtazapine dosage thinking it would cure his insomnia, it is safe to assume that the drug indeed made him feel tired and drowsy. The fact alone that he was taking Mirtazapine made him unfit to co-pilot the Germanwings flight.
Perhaps the information on the “Mirtazapine” page which is most interesting for Lubitz’s case is the fact that it can cause a condition known as angle-closure glaucoma, which results in blindness. If a person taking Mirtazapine experiences “nausea, eye pain, changes in vision, such as seeing colored rings around lights, and swelling or redness in or around the eye,” he or she should call the doctor or seek emergency medical treatment immediately.
Although German prosecutors stated shortly after the collision occurred that there was no physically detectable irregularity affecting Lubitz’s sight, Robin said that Lubitz had complained that he was seeing “flashing lights.” Lubitz may have been aware of the drug’s capacity to affect his sight and he may very well have been going blind.
Mirtazapine is definitely not a drug anyone who flies an airplane should be taking. Why was he then co-piloting the Germanwings flight? Clearly, if the warnings on the MedlinePlus website had been heeded by anyone of the people mentioned in the warning–close family, friends, doctors–the friends and families of the 149 people on that flight would not be in mourning. The chances are that none of those closest to the Germanwings co-pilot knew he was taking such a dangerous antidepressant; the doctors, however, did.
It seems that nobody, neither doctors nor patients nor those close to the patients, treat psychopharmaceuticals with the gravity that their nature would require. It would be helpful to raise public awareness about the dangers of these mind-altering drugs in general, so that friends and family could be on the look-out for behavioral symptoms, such as those outlined in the MedlinePlus warning. Aviation authorities, however, also need a different pilot-screening protocol to protect airline passengers from the occurrence of devastating tragedies like the Germanwings flight disaster.
U.S. authorities, for example, were on the verge of denying Lubitz a flying license. The New York Times had acquired documents, via American Freedom of Information laws, showing that Lubitz was taking both Mirtazapine and Cipralex. The same documents also revealed that Lubitz had lied about not having been treated for mental health problems. Perhaps there are certain careers, such as airline pilot, where certain rights to privacy should be waived in order to protect the public.
Opinion By Lucia Ray
Huffington Post: Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz’ Doctors Thought He Was Unfit To Fly: Prosecutor