The year 2020 has been marked by a series of unfortunate and unprecedented events globally. India is not behind in this. One such event that startled the nation amidst the everyday statistics of the pandemic and the lockdown was the news of alleged suicide of a young actor. An investigation was launched immediately to understand the circumstances of death, as is the protocol.
However, the rumour-mongering that followed it was unparalleled. In no time, social media was overflowing with conspiracy theories, speculative witch hunts and verdicts from the public heavily influenced by the controversial and skewed portrayal of the “news” in the media.
All national and regional news channels during their primetime hours, social media and sections of print and digital media discussed the nuances of the suicidal act relentlessly for days with a vivid display of images, distorted psychological autopsy and finally retrospective speculations of how this might have been prevented. Every personal detail was dug up, norms of privacy were disrespected and along with the fantasised information, a plethora of misinformation and disinformation coloured the public opinion.
With very little respect to the possible mental health perspective related to the untimely death of this young man, terms like depression, schizophrenia, stress and trauma suddenly became popular vocabulary. This was soon overtaken by the conspiracy buzz of who did it. Though the media has its obligations to portray high-impact news, such incidents might potentially alter the current public attitude towards mental health and perpetuate stigma against deaths due to suicide, thus hampering the prevention of this social evil.
Besides being the traditional repository for information, both mass and social media have the power to influence human thinking, perception and behaviour. This has been particularly evident during the pandemic where the need to know has been more than ever before. But the digital infodemic due to the global snowballing of misinformation about the illness and its remedies has also increased during this time. It is not limited to pandemic-related information but pervades all facets of life.
Due to its universal effect, the media has a “dual-edged” directionality with mental health. While it plays a significant role in mental health promotion, education and service development, it also runs the risk of perpetuating misinformation leading to stigma related to mental health. Besides depiction of psychiatric disorders, mental health and mental health professionals, media reporting and portrayal of suicides might influence the public understanding and consequently community suicide-prevention strategies.
Inconsiderate and insensitive reporting, misinformation and half-baked knowledge of mental health through media depiction might generate stereotypes such as—suicides can occur only in people who are mentally disturbed, only depression leads to suicide, it is just an impulsive death, it cannot be predicted and prevented, etc. The romanticisation of suicidal deaths in movies and literature, where the protagonist is glorified for choosing to end his/her life for the greater good, further complicates popular understanding. Such a portrayal conveys the wrong message to millions of viewers/readers, misrepresenting the series of events that leads to the stress of ending one’s own life.
The stigma generated by any form of media can affect the stressed, those who are contemplating suicide, besides the general population. It is critical to understand that a single wrong message in the hands of a gullible reader/viewer can worsen the problem. This is reflected in the well-known copycat suicides, called the Werther effect.
Simultaneously, the media also has the potential to use this influence for good. Responsible and sensitive reporting of suicides and relevant facts, focusing on the risk factors and utilising them in suicide prevention, as well as liaison with mental health professionals for building community awareness through audio-visuals, infographics, etc., might go a long way in building resilience. This might foster understanding of the suicide risk and methods of prevention, reduce stigma and facilitate help-seeking.
In today’s world, the media is the most powerful and influential medium that can reach a global audience. And as always, with great power comes more significant responsibilities that often go under-executed. The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017 laid down guidelines for sensitive media reporting of suicides that include strategies like accurate factual information, sensitive and humane interviewing of the bereaved, expert opinions from qualified professionals/first-person accounts of coping that might help the media in facilitating prevention of suicide rather than aggravating the risk.
Coordinated active liaison is the need of the hour. The classical gatekeeper training programme, where every individual is considered and trained as a possible preventor of suicide, might be enhanced by the media. Similarly, educational and motivational campaigns promoted through the media might enable help-seeking behaviour. Scientific discussions with experts need to be encouraged so that we overcome biases, assumptions, myths and stigma. Every such interaction has the potential for improving the knowledge, attitude and practice of the masses, helping the fight against the social evil of suicide.
Such an approach would ensure there is balanced reporting by the media when celebrity suicides occur. However, the responsibility of the media and the community is not post-hoc. Let’s not wait for another untimely death and some breaking news. Awareness about suicides is not limited to any particular day or date. It is a universal and collective endeavour. Ultimately, preventing suicide is not just about stopping an untimely death, but also understanding and modifying the destructive processes that lead an individual to consider the grave decision of ending their life. Without this, retrospective dissection of facts and figures will do little in preventing the premature loss of identities.
Clinical Psychologist & Research Scholar, IIT Kanpur
Dr Debanjan Banerjee
Geriatric Psychiatrist, NIMHANS, Bengaluru