Germanwings Recovery Effort Continues

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As investigators probe into the history of first officer Andreas Lubitz, searching for insights into why he apparently crashed a Germanwings A320 into a mountain last week, workers at the crash site are still recovering debris and human remains, and searching for the flight data recorder. They also are building a road into the remote valley to make it easier to access. A Lufthansa official told local reporters the FDR may never be found. Meanwhile, the known facts about Lubitz and his medical history have raised questions about how pilots can be better screened for suicidal tendencies. According to Matthew Nock, a professor of psychology at Harvard, the problem may not be that pilots are inadequately screened, but that there are no adequate screening protocols.

“As a field, we’re not very good at accurately predicting who is at risk for suicidal behavior,” Nock told NPR this week. He said studies show that mental health professionals “perform no better than chance” when it comes to predicting which patients will attempt suicide. Guohau Li, a medical researcher at Columbia University, told NPR that only one or two pilots kill themselves by crashing an airplane each year, and they are nearly always general aviation pilots flying alone. In a study published in 2005, Li and his co-authors examined several dozen pilot suicides, and found many of them fit a profile: young, male, with a history of mental health problems and relationship problems. That profile appears to fit Lubitz “very, very well,” Li says. But the profile also fits thousands of pilots who will never have any problems while flying, Li said. “There is no reliable way for any airline to predict which pilots are going to commit suicide by airplane,” he told NPR.

Nock has been experimenting with tests that may be able to reveal suicidal tendencies without depending on a subject volunteering the information, but the testing is still being studied, and it’s not clear if detecting suicidal thoughts in a patient will reliably predict suicidal behavior. In Lubitz’s case, the psychology is complicated by the fact that his final act, which investigators say was an intentional crash, not only was suicide but also a homicide, causing the death of 149 other people. According to a statement from the Dusseldorf public prosecutor’s office on Monday, Lubitz had been treated by psychotherapists “over a long period of time,” however, in more recent follow-up visits, “no signs of suicidal tendencies or aggression toward others were documented.”

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