Indian Media Must Be More Responsible When Reporting On Suicides: Study

A three-member team; Dr Gregory Armstrong of the University of Melbourne, Dr Anish Cherian of NIMHANS and Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, founder of Sneha Suicide Helpline, looked at the way the Indian media report suicides, studying Tamil Nadu reporting in particular

Indian Media Must Be More Responsible When Reporting On Suicides: Study

One of the dangers is in making the suicide seem glamorous, honourable or inevitable.

Bengaluru:

Suicides do often make the headlines. Particularly when it involves a celebrity or if the death is of someone who belongs to a group of people whose suicides appear to be part of a larger narrative, for example farmers or students facing academic pressure.

But a study by mental health professionals has revealed the dangers of the ways the media report on suicides. A three-member team; Dr Gregory Armstrong of the University of Melbourne, Dr Anish Cherian of NIMHANS and Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, founder of Sneha Suicide Helpline, looked at the way the Indian media report suicides, studying Tamil Nadu reporting in particular.

The findings highlight disturbing truths.

"Most research really highlights the effect of celebrity suicide through the media as being one of the major issues," Dr Armstrong told NDTV.

"It could also be where you identify with someone, a common man like yourself, who is responding to a crisis in their life through suicide, but the celebrity stories have a particularly pronounced effect. I think, also because they are covered in a very sensational way. They are people we look up to in our lives. If it can happen to them, with their wonderful lives, well, perhaps that's an option for me as well. We need to be very careful how we report celebrity suicides. And this is not just celebrity as entertainer -- it can also be a spiritual leader, a community leader, a politician."

Another issue is the over-simplification of the reasons for a person taking their own life. This makes it look as if suicide is only the result of immediate triggers rather than a complex array of factors, says the report.

"That is a major concern," said Dr Armstrong. "We found a lot of reports saying like, 'He lost a 100 rupee note and therefore he took his life' or 'She was blamed for poor cooking so she took her life.' These are very simplistic single cause reasons. They may be part of a recent trigger kind of event, but usually suicides are a complex phenomenon; a mix of issues that have happened historically for someone or something that has happened more recently in their life. It is a complex array of factors. It is very rarely one single thing," he said.

Another danger is in making the suicide seem glamorous, honourable or inevitable. This could make it less likely that a person with suicidal thoughts actually seeks help.

A very real danger is of copycat deaths -- when too many details about the method of suicide and perhaps the location are shared. This was one of the reasons the World Health Organisation came up with a set of media guidelines for reporting of suicides. Dr Armstrong said, "There is something called the Werther effect where we are concerned that people who may be vulnerable at any time, may be learning about suicide, how to respond to a crisis in their lives by using suicide as an option, through role models that are brought up in media reports. We are also very concerned about too much detail being given around particular methods, perhaps disseminating new methods or people learning about particular locations where they might go to do this suicide."

Media reporting is very often insensitive to the bereaved who are already grieving the loss of a loved one. Public speculation of trouble in the family or even directly saying that an argument with relatives or friends led to someone taking their own life can add to a burden of guilt. Intrusive questioning soon after such a loss is also a danger.

It isn't only the news media that need to be careful. Depiction of suicide in films and on television has been shown to have a deep impact.

A suicide presented in the US series, "Thirteen Reasons Why" has caused much debate. "There is 100% a chance (of life imitating art). That is a new and interesting area of research," said Dr Armstrong.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention has actually given out guidelines around how TV shows and movies should cover these things. There is a recent study in the US looking at the impact of "Thirteen Reasons Why" -- a TV series portraying a suicide, seeing an increase in suicide in the population after this series. This is a major concern."

"One should not be afraid to talk about suicide. Suicides are okay to talk about. It is about framing it in a slightly different way. That there are options available if you are having suicidal thoughts," he added.

What was the impact of social media? While misinformation and sensational details can spread like wildfire across social media, they can also serve as sources of support when people reach out to someone expressing distress. "When we looked at tweets around depression, one of the most common responses to people's tweets when they disclose feeling of depression were actually tweets of support," said Dr Armstrong.

There were also other concerns in the researchers' focus on Indian media reporting on suicide.

"My greatest concern I suppose was the daily barrage of the news of particular deaths and attempts. It sort of normalised suicide as an option of response to various crises," said Dr Armstrong.

Media can help by also reporting the stories of those who sought help, who found coping strategies and by publicising helplines for people with suicidal thoughts to reach out to.

The Press Council of India adopted World Health Organisation media guidelines for reporting suicides in September this year. But for media reporting on suicides, there still is a long way to go.

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