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Suicide: Does Media Have A Role To Play?

World Mental Health Day, 2019 talks about “Suicide Prevention in the Young”. Each suicide is a tragedy and the cumulative rates of prevalence, a massive public health problem. Although most of us talk about various mental and psychological causes impacting suicide rates, what we do not talk about is how the media adds to the problem by insensitive and unscientific reporting.

Suicide is a global phenomenon and the risk is there throughout the life of any individual. Amongst the many factors contributing to increased risk of suicide, one is media reporting of suicides. Studies have found that biased and sensationalised media reporting increases the risk of imitative suicides. This risk is determined by :

  1. Form of media reporting
  2. Duration of news coverage
  3. content of reporting
  4. Celebrity suicide
  5. The psychological state of the news consumer

Systematic research has established that training journalists in sensitive reporting can bring down this risk greatly.

The Indian Psychiatric Society has alaid down specific guidelines for reporting on suicide. however, not many of us are either aware of the same or even whether there is a need for the same.

  • Form of reporting: Maintaining discreetness, avoiding catchy headlines, not trying to sensationalise. Most media channels attempted to cash in on the unfortunate and untimely demise of CCD owner Mr. V. G. Sidhartha by publishing front-page news with catchy headlines. This might help in selling more copies, however, it also creates a misperception that it is fine to take one’s life in times of distress. In a way, it rationalises the extreme action, making it seem more practical and acceptable to people suffering from life problems.
  • Content: The guidelines state that the content should not include visuals from the site, suicide notes and other details which can further disbalance an emotionally stressed mind. They also suggest that the news should not imply that suicide is an end to solving one’s problems or signify martyrdom. If one could recall from the Burari tragedy, a few months back, the many photographs that were shared on the media – of the house, the street, the walls, the rooms, etc. These images haunt an individual who is already distressed and tip him/her to the other side.
  • Sensitive reporting: The guidelines suggest respecting the emotions of the suicide survivors and not hurting their sentiments by printing unconfirmed or unscientific facts. One often finds intrusive interviews and personal details of the survivors of suicide. These may be extremely disturbing to them as well as other survivors and further depress and disturb them.
  • Special caution with celebrity suicides: As celebrity suicides garner higher attention, one finds a florid depiction of the same in the media. Celebrities have greater fan following, such sensationalised news can be greater motivators for accepting suicide as accepted behaviour.
  • Not belittling suicide for the sake of publicity and garnering attention. Many a time, threats and acts of self-harm and suicide are used for purposes of conveying distress, anger and/or rebellion. However, misreporting or misquoting of such statements can do more harm than good.

The purpose of suicide reporting by print and television media should be:

  • Providing knowledge regarding mental illness.
  • Alleviating stigma around mental illness and mental health.
  • Targeting the stigma around help-seeking for mental health and psychological distress.
  • Normalising the experience of psychological stress as necessitating care.
  • Providing numbers of suicide helplines
  • Relating knowledge regarding people who struggle with suicidal thoughts and how they coped up with them.

As we all contribute to sharing news around us through social media all the time, we too can play a role in the responsible portrayal of suicide in our society. Hopefully, with a sense of mutual responsibility towards creating a mentally healthy society, we shall be able to inculcate these suggestions in our daily life.

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