Can the media play a leading role in preventing suicides?

There is a growing body of evidence that indicates the real concern is not 'discussing suicide', but rather how it is depicted and portrayed.
Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustration)
Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustration)

"In July 2020, when the news of popular actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide broke, I could not help but feel mildly relieved that I wouldn't have to repeatedly recount the incident. I could step away and grieve silently," says Rohit (name changed), an erstwhile radio jockey.

The death of a celebrity in his profession meant regular announcements and updates on the radio for listeners. "While the brief from senior management would be to keep away from the gory details and rather 'celebrate the life' of the celebrity," Rohit says, "it was a slippery slope and often left to individual presenters to take a call on what they would want to include in their announcements."

But history knows, as the news of this unfortunate incident broke, India’s electronic and print media went into overdrive to ensure audiences were fed the minutest details of the event. Prime time anchors resorted to the ‘gamification of journalism’ by creating conspiracy theories for their captive audiences. For the next few months, the country sat up wide-eyed in front of their television sets, actively engaged in an investigative plot to unravel the details of the "killer". In their bid to rake up mass hysteria and fuel soaring TRPs, what media houses blatantly violated was the Press Council of India’s guidelines for reporting on suicides, besides unashamedly ignoring the norms of journalistic conduct.

But why does the media need guidelines for reporting on suicides?

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2021, 1,64, 033 people died by suicide, in India. Furthermore, it is estimated that for each person who dies by suicide, there are more than 20 others who attempt suicide. Unfortunately, despite these alarming statistics, the media continues to focus on sensational cases and individual stories, detracting attention from the pressing need to address the complex issue at hand. "The media coverage around suicides is spiced up like ghost stories which use dramatisation and fear as hooks. Often, the narrative built is so dark that somewhere you start belonging to it," says Vernita Verma, filmmaker and suicide attempt survivor.

In 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a German novel published by Goethe led to a rise in the number of suicides among young people. This theorised the 'Werther effect', a phenomenon to explain how the media can potentially induce imitation effects of suicidal behaviour. Research shows that celebrity suicides trigger 'copy-cat' suicide attempts, particularly in the immediate aftermath. Studies that measured the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide story, found that they were 14.3 times more likely to observe a copycat effect than studies pertaining to suicides of other individuals.

Closer home, a study published in the World Psychiatry Journal, revealed how appalling coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death by suicide, which included reports on the method of suicide, led to a surge in suicide‐related internet search queries in India. There was a spate of reports from smaller cities and towns of deaths using the same method of suicide as the actor. "If he can do it, why can't I," read the suicide note of a young boy from Bareilly.

While persons with a history of attempted suicide are at the highest risk of reattempting to take their own lives, family members of those who have died by suicide are also vulnerable to self-harm. "I remember my mom crying and saying to me, I cannot watch this news anymore because I know what you've been through, and we can't imagine someone talking about you like this," says 25-year-old Arjun Gupta, a lived experience advocate who went through an episode of severe clinical depression in 2015, that included multiple suicide attempts.

Which brings us back to the question: Can the media play a significant role in preventing suicides?

There is a growing body of evidence that indicates the real concern is not 'discussing suicide', but rather how it is depicted and portrayed.

In Mozart's 18th-century opera, The Magic Flute, one of the main characters, Papageno, loses his love and feels the only way out of his pain is suicide. Before he can act on it, three characters show him other ways to solve his problems. Named after this story, the 'Papageno effect' is the positive influence that mass media can have by reporting responsibly on suicide.

"While the Papageno effect cannot replace media narratives about suicides if the topic meets the media criterion of newsworthiness, but it provides a potentially novel and safe way forward to educate the public about suicide prevention that can help shift the focus from narratives of despair to a more focused portrayal of how to cope with adversity," explain researchers in a recent article published in the Lancet. Given this, it is important for the media to present alternative perspectives and solutions to crises as a way of promoting suicide prevention.

In November 2022, India unveiled its National Suicide Prevention Strategy -- a document that looks at multisectoral collaborations to reduce suicide mortality in the country. The strategy lists, 'advocacy for responsible reporting of suicide by the media’, by ‘strict implementation of Press Council of India’s guidelines on responsible reporting of suicide', as an area of immediate priority, an outcome that needs to be achieved in the next 1-3 years. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has been identified as the key stakeholder in this case, responsible for ensuring the implementation and subsequent achievement of the objective.

While the document mentions "the number of complaints registered against irresponsible reporting of suicide by the media" as an indicator to signal progress, there has been no reference of how, by whom, and where these complaints can be registered. We believe there is a strong need to introduce and scale-up monitoring systems like Project SIREN, an initiative of the Keshav Desiraju India Mental Health Observatory, to assess and ensure media adherence to PCI’s guidelines.

Despite these guidelines being issued in 2019, the media does not cover any stories of hope, of individuals who have come back after going to the brink and continued to live wholesome and fulfilling lives. On the contrary, dark and sensational reportage further increases the stigma hence making it difficult for those who have attempted suicide to find safe spaces to tell their stories.

So, what needs to change?

We at the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy have developed a self-paced e-course on Reporting Suicides Responsibly. As a part of course development, we spoke to media experts on the realities of the newsroom and what it would take for journalists to follow the guidelines.

Based on what experts have to say, here are 5 practical suggestions for newsrooms and media houses to actively implement:

1. Train editors to resist the temptation to request clickbait content

A recent thread on Twitter shows how reporters are often pressurised by their superiors to go to any lengths to publish 'breaking' and 'exclusive' news. "Reporters are pushed to ask for the deceased's pictures from their family, if it's not available anywhere. I have seen one tabloid reporter weep when pressurised to do the same. One of my senior colleagues asked me to visit the morgue of a civic hospital and request the staff there to uncover the cloth sheet from a deceased's face, so that my photographer colleague can take his image. I refused [sic].'

2. Establish mechanisms and automate processes to ensure basic checks

Journalists in newsrooms are often under pressure to publish wire copies as soon as they are filed. These copies can be edited for triggering details before being published. Keep a list of local and relevant helplines handy. Helplines can provide a safe and confidential place for people to discuss their feelings and get support. They can be especially helpful for those who may not have access to in-person mental health resources or who may feel too overwhelmed or ashamed to seek help in person. "I remember I couldn't speak to my parents about it, I didn't know what to say. Helplines were my only hope and that’s how I made it this far," says Bengali actress ParnoMittra.

3. Introduce suicide reporting programmes in colleges and media organisations

Unfortunately, journalism courses do not prioritise training on suicide reporting due to a lack of awareness of the potential impact of media coverage on suicide rates. By providing training on the subject, colleges and media organisations can help ensure that their coverage of suicide is responsible, accurate, and sensitive.

4. Adopt a human-centered approach when writing articles and stories on suicide

Humanising news articles on suicide can help encourage readers to consider the impact of suicide on the person's loved ones and the community, rather than just focusing on the person who has died by suicide. This can help readers and viewers feel more connected to the story and better understand the ripple effects of suicide. As Arjun Gupta says, "Just try to understand that this was a person who had their own memories, their own achievements and a person is a lot more than the way they die. It's more about the life than how they chose to die. So, focus more on the life."

5. Move suicide reporting from the crime beat to the health beat

The crime reporter approach to suicide news has been largely described as "incident based, following a simple format for writing the news story -- answering 'who, what, why, where and when', with information and photos provided readily by police officers". However, suicide is an inherently complex public health issue, often influenced by multiple social and structural determinants, such as systemic factors (unemployment and poverty), community factors (stigma, caste, gender, and religious discrimination) individual factors (alcohol and substance use, financial burden, isolation) and interpersonal factors (emotional abuse, grief, conflict in relationships).

Media professionals, therefore, have the responsibility to ensure their message is not speculative or sensational, and sensitively acknowledges the complex and multifactorial nature of suicide. This will help promote a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of the systemic issues associated with suicides. It can encourage readers to think about how they can support those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide.

In the case of the deaths by suicide that took place in Burari, Delhi, several journalists claim that the incident was reported as a crime drama with a voyeuristic angle. As a result, the reporting failed to stimulate a more meaningful discussion on the issue. In a documentary series on the incident, Mukesh Sengar, Senior Special Correspondent, NDTV, acknowledged that the coverage was "hyped up and sensationalised".

But when will things change?

Throughout the course of this article, while we have referred to the 'media' as a collective, we strongly believe, every individual within the print and electronic media ecosystem, be the editors-in-chief, sub-editors, studio and ground reporters, photographers, visual graphic designers, illustrators, social media managers, and others associated with media houses, all need to reflect on the relevance of suicide reporting guidelines in their choice of narratives, words and images.

After all, as Uncle Ben famously reminded his journalist nephew, Peter Parker, 'with great power comes great responsibility'! Accordingly, it is crucial for all stakeholders to recognise this power and act with responsibility. Without this, all efforts toward suicide prevention will be merely tokenistic.

(Meera Damji is the Lead, Communications & Media Research; and Soumitra Pathare is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Director; at the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy, Indian Law Society, Pune.)

Discussing suicides can be triggering for some. However, suicides are preventable. In case you feel distressed by the content or know someone in distress, call Sneha Foundation - 04424640050 (available 24x7) or iCall, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' helpline - 9152987821, which is available Monday to Saturday from 8 am to 10 pm

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