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Fear of Flying Pales Next to Suicide Statistics

by on March 30, 2015 6:30 AM

I was searching through my online medical records last week to see if the order for a blood test my physician had written last September had expired.

The prospect of the 12 hour fast and a morning without coffee before having my blood drawn had made that test a low priority in the months since the order was issued.

I finally had a free morning so I decided I should get it out of the way.

As I searched my online records, I noted that among the weight and blood pressure taken at my last visit, as well as a notation that I take multivitamins every day, I had been identified as "phobic" about flying.

I guess it's logical to assume that when a patient requests medication to be able to enter an airport, get on a plane and travel at 35,000 feet in the air without sweaty palms, a racing heart and the risk of shrieking out in fear, the doctor might believe the patient is phobic about flying.

To borrow a quote from Tom Cruise's character in the movie "A Few Good Men," I'm not phobic about flying. I'm phobic about crashing.

In the attempt to calm the nervous flyer, people always refer to statistics. The odds of a person dying in a plane are 1 in 7 million compared to the odds of a person dying of cardiac disease which, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is 1 in 2. (Evidently, eating poorly and not exercising is considerably more risky than flying in an airplane.)

Researchers at MIT have suggested that people are 19 times safer in an airplane than in a car. One source who analyzed the risk of air travel indicated that one 727, with each seat filled, would have to crash every day to equal the number of highway deaths every year. Over our lifetimes, we are more at risk from dying from choking or heat exposure than we are from a plane crash.

I thought about my concerns about flying when we learned last week that a co-pilot on a German airline flight may have intentionally locked the pilot out of the cockpit and then set the plane to crash into a mountainside in the French Alps. Of the 150 people who immediately perished in the crash, there were newlyweds, families traveling on vacation, artists, businessmen and businesswomen, and 10 high school students and their teachers on a study abroad trip.

Preliminary reports are suggesting that the accident is likely a murder-suicide in which this troubled young man may have taken the lives of 150 people.

Perhaps the statistics we should be concerned about are those that track the alarming suicide rates in today's culture.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Psychological autopsies on individuals who commit suicide suggest that 90 percent of people who kill themselves have serious mental health issues, including depression, bi-polar disorder, substance abuse problems and other thought disorders such as schizophrenia.

People who attempt suicide usually report feelings of hopelessness and psychological pain for which they see no end. Other factors such as medical issues (i.e. cancer), family history of suicide and social issues such as loss, change in status, bullying or other relationship issues can put people at risk for suicide.

But what about murder-suicide? What makes people decide to not only take their own lives but take the lives of others as well?

According to the data, women in domestic violence situations are at greatest risk for being killed in a murder-suicide. The murder weapon is most frequently a firearm.

The typical murder-suicide does not involve a plane full of innocent people being murdered by a pilot or co-pilot making a seemingly purposeful decision to crash the plane. Although murder-suicide by plane has been used in religious and political extremism (such as those on 9/11 and perhaps in the missing Malaysian plane), policies and procedures related to the number of people required in the cockpit, locks on cockpit doors and pilot medical and background checks provide barriers to incidents such as the one we saw last week in the Alps.

In tragedies such as the Connecticut school shooting and, possibly, the incident with the Germanwings pilot last week, significant mental health issues were the driving force in the taking of the lives of others.

The person who takes his or her own life either after or during the murder of other people often demonstrates depression, irritability, paranoia, humiliation or rage prior to the incident. Loss. Depression. Social issues. For most people who commit suicide, the warning signs are often missed by family, friends and co-workers. As a culture, we need to do a better job of recognizing and providing support to people in what is becoming an increasingly disengaged society. Sadly, a person intent on killing themselves can usually find a way to do it if they are determined to do so.

In recent years as I have had to fly more for business and have had the opportunity to fly more for recreation, I am considerably less anxious. This incident doesn't change that for me. Instead, the loss of so many innocent lives -- including that of the co-pilot -- serves as a reminder of the stigma that we attach to mental health issues and the need to make sure the effective treatment is available for those who need it.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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