The coverage of suicide with sensational headlines and repeated depictions of the body and method of suicide is known to cause undue distress. An increase in suicide attempts and incidents, particularly after a celebrity suicide, is known as the “Werther Effect”. Despite this, there seems to be little awareness in media circles about suicide coverage.
By the end of 2019, it seemed like the Indian Psychiatric Society and the Press Council of India had begun to take some critical steps in the right direction. Both groups worked together and published guidelines about media coverage of mental health and suicide while referring to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Mental Health Care Act (2017). Several organisations, such as the White Swan Foundation, NIMHANS, and Suicide Prevention India Foundation, issued their recommendations as well. While the last 10-15 years have shown improvements in media coverage of mental health, the publication of the guidelines marked a critical milestone for the country. It signified two associations joining hands after a long time. It also opened the door to using the power of mass media to break stigma, taboo, and misconceptions that have plagued the mental health space for as long as we can remember.
Unfortunately, the foundation that we tried to build has cracks. Over the last few months, the country witnessed a media tailspin that has all but silenced conversation about the importance of mental health. Several years of effort was reversed overnight, and coverage about high-profile incidents got published faster than anyone could keep up. Several things were published that were very stigmatising for the mentally ill. Less than a year after this milestone, we have managed to deepen taboo, add to the silence, and failed to protect the vulnerability of many readers.
It is fruitless to underplay the influence that media has in our daily lives and our mental health. We are all more dependent on technology than ever before and are spending less and less time away from a screen. It is impractical to escape headlines, and it is impossible to know the mental state of the person who is reading the news. Scores of people who struggle with their mental health have consumed more misinformation about it in the last few months than they probably did in their entire lives. Print, digital, and social media have been swarming with articles that equate mental health and mental illnesses with financial loss, professional setbacks, and drug abuse. This falsehood has not only added to the confusion and panic amongst those who are at high risk themselves but amplify an already existing stigma about mental health across the general population.
A single spark set off a dangerous chain reaction across the country. News channels, print, and social media all went into a hyperdrive in sensationalising the story and defeating the whole purpose of the guidelines of suicide reporting. In India, an estimated 70-90% of individuals don’t seek out help and treatment for psychiatric conditions. Amongst those that do, we have witnessed several people experiencing worsening symptoms and incidents of copycat behaviour over the last few months. We can only extrapolate what happens amongst those who don’t seek out help.
Copycat behaviour and suicides have been a well-known and predictable phenomenon for several decades. Almost every time a high-profile incident takes place, mental health front-liners face a sudden increase in patients who either mimic the incident or attempt to. And, although underreported, we have witnessed this across India in the recent past.
Our intentions cannot be so far removed from its execution; we have a responsibility to do better, and we can.
Today, the Press Council of India is the only body that is empowered to enforce their guidelines in the media and journalism community. It is our duty to demand better, ethical, and more constructive coverage of mental health. We need to collectively acknowledge the responsibility we have and use mass media to break stigma and taboo, not strengthen it.
Psychiatrists and therapists alike should not take a stand to disengage with the media and worsen an already fragile situation but work towards reconstructing the foundation. The mental health community doesn’t have formal guidelines or training to help them engage with the media today. More often than not, this results in interviews and statements being given without understanding their possible repercussions. It’s critical for us to educate this community and prepare them to work constructively with the media.
For readers; understand that you cannot assume everyone will read or watch the news with the same lens. Your history, your mental state, your background, and your knowledge is different. It is senseless to expect this or to place blame on people who consume it differently than you. While many of us are trying to take steps in the right direction, we have a very long way to go to talk about mental health openly. Considering the pervasive silence, we must all realise that it can be difficult for many around us to be outspoken about their struggles. The answers are unlikely to be simple, and it’s essential to educate yourself, reach out to loved ones, be patient with them, and guide them to professional help without judgment if it's required.
Our country has started to take small steps forward, and it was a significant achievement for the Press Council of India to publish guidelines for the media fraternity. We have an opportunity to use this ethically and responsibly and realise that the impact of words can be far-reaching. We must work to build a foundation that doesn’t crumble under high-profile incidents. Stigma and taboo around mental health are real and deeply entrenched across our society; it’s our choice to take this as a setback or a chance to do better, together.