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Germanwings Crash Investigation Sparks Debate on Pilots' Right to Mental Health Confidentiality

The head of the investigation said copilot Andreas Lubitz had shown symptoms that "could be compatible with a psychotic episode" weeks before Lubitz flew an airliner filled with 150 people into the side of a mountain.

by VICE News and Reuters
Mar 13 2016, 5:15pm

Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who investigators say flew the jet into the ground, in a file photo. (Photo by Foto-Team-Mueller/EPA)

The German co-pilot who crashed the Germanwings jet into the Alps last year, killing all 150 people onboard, was in the thick of a psychotic depressive episode, French investigators said on Sunday.

Andreas Lubitz, 28 – who had a history of severe depression – had started to display symptoms consistent with a psychotic depressive episode in December 2014, and consulted several doctors over the following months. Two weeks before the disaster last March, a private doctor recommended that Lubitz be treated in a psychiatric hospital.

However, none of the doctors whom Lubitz consulted reached out to aviation authorities to voice their concern about the co-pilot's mental health. Their disinclination to do so has sparked a debate about when it's appropriate to bypass patient confidentiality in the interest of public safety. French investigators said that Lubitz, who also had eyesight problems, had researched suicide methods and did not inform his employer of his condition.

Related: Germanwings Crash Pilot May Have Attempted a Trial Run During His Previous Flight

Germanwings Flight 9525 left Barcelona Airport on March 24 last year at around 9 am, and was headed to Dusseldorf. Authorities found from listening to the cockpit voice recorder that the flight captain told Lubitz he was leaving the cockpit and asked him to assume radio communications. Seconds later, the altitude of the aircraft changed and began its descent.

When the captain returned, the cockpit door had been locked from the inside. The recorder picked up banging on the cockpit door and muffled voices. The aircraft began descending rapidly towards ground, and took ten minutes to make its descent. The plane slammed into the side of a mountain near Le Vernet, a French village in the alps, at 435 miles per hour.

"Death was instant" said French prosecutor Brice Robin during a news briefing after the crash.

The investigating authority said there is "a lack of clear guidelines in German regulations" when it comes to doctors alerting authorities about a public safety concern.

Lubitz had taken time out of his training with Lufthansa – the company which owns Germanwings – for several months due to mental health issues. He returned to the program in 2009 after receiving the "all clear" from his doctors. His aviation certificate contained a note saying he required regular examination, and was contingent on his good mental health.

French investigators are urging European authorities to develop a better system for vetting their pilots' mental health.

Since the crash, many airlines and aviation authorities have started mandating that at least two people are in the cockpit during a flight at all times. 

Related: Pilot Accused of Deliberately Crashing Germanwings Plane 'Hid an Illness from his Employers'