I looked at the clock and it was 3 AM. For the previous three hours I had been laying in bed with my eyes shut, nowhere near REM state, just hoping to fall asleep. In just four short hours, I needed to be up, checked out of my hotel, and on my way to the airport for my morning flight back to the US.

What was keeping me awake? Panic. Pre-panic actually, or what's known as anticipatory anxiety.

This is a state of mental unrest where your mind begins to mess with you. It's reminding you that you're about to be in a situation which is extremely dangerous and begins manufacturing all sorts of irrational situations just to scare the shit out of you. Ultimately, it's trying to convince you that you should avoid whatever is ahead. And, it's very persuasive.

That situation: a 9-hour flight from Norway to the US, a large portion of which is over water.

As I've written about previously, I have anxiety, or rather Panic Disorder. This trip was the first time I had flown over the ocean, something I wouldn't have imagined ever doing just five years earlier.

Ironically, I was speaking in Norway at a tech festival about the stigmas in tech. More specifically, attempting to encourage others to speak openly about their troubles, especially as they relate to mental illness.

As I'm lying there in bed, I begin to imagine how excruciatingly painful it's going to be, stuck in that airplane for 9 hours the next day. My mind was trying to envision for me what nine hours would feel like--a day at work.

Shit, that feels like a long time, not helping.

Then irrationality sets in: Am I going to have a panic attack on the plane--in the middle of the ocean? Of course I am. What will I do? I'll probably go crazy. What does that mean? Well, it means I'll have to run to the cockpit and make them land the plane. If that doesn't work, I'll probably need to jump out. But shit, the sharks. I won't survive the fall, but I really don't want to be eaten by sharks, even when I'm dead. Gross. Think about all of the unknown creatures that are living in the ocean, which I'll be flying over. Holy crap, the whales, they're huge and they'll devour me. Damn it, I can't do this. Wait, maybe they can restrain me if I do something stupid. Maybe there is a doctor onboard that can help. Should I ask before I take off? No way, then they'll know I'm crazy. I don't want them to know I have anxiety. Everyone will look at me like I'm a freak.

Therein lays the problem, folks. It's a stigma.

This is an honest to God interpretation of the thought process of someone with anxiety. A mental illness which to those that have it, is embarrassing. Yet shockingly, 1 out of every 4 people you meet suffer from it. If you and I met today, you would never know I was anxious.

Therein lays the second problem. It's invisible.

Imagine if you had cancer, but were too ashamed to tell anyone, including doctors. That's mental illness.

It turns out that none of what my mind had preconceived actually occurred--thankfully. However, I'm also someone that speaks openly about my illness and someone that receives treatment. There have been steps that have been made that have led to certain comfort in knowing that, while it still concerns me, it's likely that everything will be fine.

What happens when you're not outspoken and haven't take the steps necessary to properly treat your illness?

What if instead of a passenger, I was the pilot, and, for the same the exact same reasons I mentioned above, I don't reveal my illness to my employer?

These aren't only logical questions, but realistic ones as well.

What happened on the Germanwings flight is tragic. No two ways about it. But, was it preventable? Yes.

We cannot begin to assume what was going through the mind of Andreas Lubitz before he decided to take his own life and the lives of 149 others. But, we now have enough information to know that he was suffering from a mental illness. Something I just described above.

Was he in a rational state of mind? We will probably never know.

His employer and his government are not to blame. Again, mental illness is invisible. His actions are on him and him alone. 

But why is it that we can sympathize with someone that has a physical condition, but still not yet accept a mental condition? Yet, even considering the percentage of those suffering from mental illness far exceeds that of other illnesses.

Call me confused.

As one of the founders of Startups Anonymous, a place that encourages open dialog within tech, I see the firsthand accounts of people who suffer from mental illness. I'm not a doctor, nor am I a psychiatrist, but I can tell you that it's prevalent. But, not just in tech, it's everywhere.

What happened on that Germanwings flight should be a wake up call to all of us. There is a mental health crisis in this world and it needs to be addressed. It needs to be destigmatized and discussed. Otherwise it won't be resolved.

If I were in Mr. Lubitz shoes, I may not have been outspoken either (as evidenced above). Is that the world that we want to live in?

#DeStigmatizeMentalIllness

Published on: Mar 28, 2015
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