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The Media Has The Potential To Break The ‘Chain Of Stigma’ Around Mental Health

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TW: This post mentions suicide.

Its been months since the death of Sushant Singh Rajput and people started talking about ‘suicide’, ‘mental illness’ frequently. Since then the media’s role and its depiction of mental illness are what we started to question. The discourse on mental health started after his death, when reporters, actors, and almost everyone started spilling the “do’s and don’ts” of mental illness. People started sharing their opinion on how “he did not look depressed”. And this is where, I strongly feel, we all failed as a society in terms of understanding mental health.

The use of media is well known. People use various forms of media to be in touch with people and to even keep track of national and international events. In the last few decades, an ample amount of research has been done to understand how mass media influences our belief systems (Wimmer RD,1997).

mental health

Studies have shown that in today’s society, media holds a strong power to influence people (CMHA,2004). The daily life of people is impacted by what they see and hear from the media. This influence is both prosocial and antisocial (Philo G, 1994). The conception and understanding of mental health are synthesized by media.

The over-exaggeration and inaccurate portrayal of mental illness in media even in the movies are perfect examples of how the media plays a role in stigmatizing mental illness even more!

A very captivating observation by Kalpana Shrivastava was about the linking of social theories to the role of media in increasing the stigma of mental illness (Srivastava, K,2018). The cultivation theory proposes that those who spend more time on “virtual platforms” might assume it as reality. So, depicting inaccurate mental illness through social media platforms as well as the news will make people believe in a false understanding of the mental illness (Gerbner G,2002).

The social learning theory proposes that individual learns not only from experience but also from observation which means how the mass media depicts mental illness, a person with mental illness, the treatment also influences people’s understanding. So even if the person has not seen any person with mental illness, the depiction of a person with mental illness through mass media as violent and always suicidal will make them believe it as “reality”(Bandura A,1992).

Understanding Mental Illness

A lot of times, people do not have an understanding of mental illness and what mental wellness is. It is very important to understand that mental health is a spectrum. Depending on the social reality, life experiences, own coping strategies sometimes we are on the positive side of the spectrum and sometimes can be on the negative side.

Mental health, rather mental illness is not so simple which you can just tell by looking at a person “Dekhne mai to nahi lagta depressed”(He does not look depressed). Depression, depending on symptoms, can look different for different people. Gross generalization of mental illness by media is dangerous.

The media’s understanding of mental health is not only simplistic but reductionist. Having depression does not necessarily mean that the person might think about dying every time, which is falsely pictured by the mass media. Mass media can play a huge role in sensitizing people about mental health which unfortunately currently is failing to do so.

The media also fails to address the holistic approach of looking at mental health. Instead of understanding that there are a lot of factors influencing the mental health of a person like caste, class,  gender, socioeconomic situation, religion, it focuses only on biological factors. And this ultimately targets an individual questioning their capacity to cope up with difficult situations. Understanding different reasons for mental illness will help change people’s way of looking at mental illness.

Negative Stereotypes And Stigma

It gets even scarier when we look at the image of a person with mental illness that has been created by the mass media. It is very common to see, in movies or on TV shows, people with mental illness be depicted as violent, will commit murders, and will be incapable of holding a job (Caputo NM, 2011). But the media does not make it clear to the public that very few of people with severe mental disorders commit severe crimes which are actually very less than the violence created by so-called ‘normal’ people (Angermeyer MC,2001).

Rose(1998) rightly points out when he also talked about treatment options that in mass media, the treatment for mental disorders is considered to be psychiatric medicine. But, the media fails to uncover the other mental health professionals and other kinds of treatment therapies as well. Many people do not even know the different fields of mental health and different mental health professional because of the media’s preference for depicting psychiatry as the dominant one.

The unmet needs of people, because of the lack of mental health professionals in India, is also because of stigma, and people’s lack of understanding of different mental health professionals. Media’s preference for psychiatric treatment as the ultimate option for mental illness has negatively impacted the de-institutionalization and community mental health programs all over the world.

a woma woman counselling a person with her notebook in handan counselling a person with her motebook in hand
Representational image.

Media And Suicide

How the media portrays suicide also affects the understanding and perception of people about suicide. Studies have shown that the mode of discussing suicide in mass media can affect vulnerable populations (Williams K,2001). From the number of research, a guideline has been formulated for reporting suicides which suggest that overgeneralization of mental illness, glorifying it for the sake of publicity should be avoided while reporting suicide (WHO,2000) But do mass media really follow these guidelines? The role of media when it comes to reporting suicide should be “sensitization not sensationalism.

tv reporters and cameramen standing in a crowd with masks on their faces
Representational image.

In the case of celebrity death especially the details of how the death occurred and other detailing should be avoided. But what happened in the Sushant Singh Rajput case?

The photos of his body were all over the media, the media started peddling their own conspiracy theories about his death, and about mental health. The media showed every little detail about his death which might be a trigger for someone who is having mental health concerns.

Who will be responsible for its consequences? In a report, in India, 18 cases of copycat suicides were found after the media reported on a judicial hanging(Chowdhury et al. 2007).

It’s very important not to oversimplify the reason for suicide. As mentioned earlier this is a complex phenomenon. People can’t and should not see as mere “suicide” but understanding various factors associated with it. After farmer suicides, the media showed how the government was helping but who knows the reality? Without examining the social reality it is impossible to understand mental health. The media plays an important role in this. The reporters, as correctly said, are not simply reporting the news, but are also educating the masses and shaping perceptions.

The Media As A Ray Of Hope

As the increasing use of media is well known, it can be used as a strong tool to sensitize people, create a safe space for everyone to talk about mental health, changing the negative attitudes, and reducing the stigma of mental illness. When media have been a front leader in spreading stigma about mental illness, it can also be an efficient tool to destigmatize mental illness (Stuart H,2008).  It can also be used as a platform to talk about mental health and making it normal to ask for help.

An integrative approach can be used in mental health where media can become a powerful partner. The media should empathise with people with mental illness. Emphasizing that mental illness is real as well as treatable and featuring stories about mental health and mental illness is responsible, accurate way can help overcome the prejudices about mental illness.

Movies, TV shows should also be sensible while depicting mental illness. I feel the media should portray success stories of people who have won this battle of mental illness which might be inspiring for people. Also, from a huge platform like news channels or newspapers to platforms like blogs, social media different approaches of looking at treatment should be promoted.

So when media shows psychiatric treatment as an option then counselling, therapy, focusing on community models, deinstitutionalization should also be promoted. At the same time, normalizing asking for help is something media can play a significant role in.

Reporters and editors working in the media should have proper mental health sensitization training in which the guidelines about reporting suicide, ethics, holistic approach of looking at mental health should be promoted. And the role of the media should also be promoted in such training. This is important when people say “hasta rehta tha, to aise kar hi nahi skta”(He used to smile so he cannot do this). In such cases, providing correct information regarding mental illness, emphasizing the fact that mental health is a spectrum and mental illness have a wide range of conditions, symptoms are important to discuss and express on available platforms. So, the media has the big responsibility of not only giving information to people but sensitizing them correctly on topics like mental health.

The media plays a significant role in shaping people’s beliefs as well as their attitudes. The negative portrayal of mental illness through media enforces negative attitudes and false beliefs about mental illness as well as a person with mental illness. This gets serious when media forgets their role of sensitizing people and gets carried away with the sensationalism.

The media has the capability to change people’s perception of mental illness, it has the potential to break the chains of the stigma of mental illness. First sensitisation of reporters about mental health should be done. Attempts should be made to convey the right information about mental health and efforts should be made to create a safe space for everyone to talk about mental health. Now its the media’s responsibility to show stories of recovery, stories of hope, and pass on the mic to people with mental illness.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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