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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 36  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 169-171

Celebrity suicide: A case for collaboration between media and mental health professionals

1 Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, IMH, PGIMS, Pt. BD Sharma UHS, Rohtak, Haryana, India

Date of Submission02-Sep-2020
Date of Decision02-Sep-2020
Date of Acceptance02-Sep-2020
Date of Web Publication28-Sep-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Hitesh Khurana
Department of Psychiatry, IMH, PGIMS, Pt. BD Sharma UHS, Rohtak - 124 001, Haryana
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_301_20

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How to cite this article:
Sivakumar T, Khurana H. Celebrity suicide: A case for collaboration between media and mental health professionals. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2020;36:169-71

How to cite this URL:
Sivakumar T, Khurana H. Celebrity suicide: A case for collaboration between media and mental health professionals. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Feb 6];36:169-71. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2020/36/3/169/296261

  Introduction Top

Suicide is a deeply personal act with social, emotional, and economic consequences. This is tragic as suicide is preventable. India accounts for 18% of the global population and 26.6% of global suicide deaths.[1]

The issue has been in limelight after the untimely death of a Bollywood actor on June 14, 2020. In India, movie stars enjoy iconic status and youth look up to them. Some fans may emulate them [2] despite detrimental effects on their own and family life. When a celebrity commits suicide, the public is interested to know more about it from the media.

  Media Cultivating Minds Top

In principle, the media is an ideal teacher who stimulates the student's emotions, cognition, actions, critical thinking, and moral evaluation so that the student can learn effectively. The media should provide facts, offer different perspectives, and help people interpret and decide what is appropriate for the society. To effectively reach out to people, the media presents selected content with emotions.

People make sense of the world from different sources of information including media. Media coverage of suicide makes the people identify with the victim, form opinions, and may even justify the act.[3] Suicidal behavior has bio-psychosocial causation. Not everyone in difficult circumstances contemplates suicide. The media alone does not cultivate suicidal tendencies de novo in an individual.[4] However, sensational media coverage of suicide may make the vulnerable individuals feel more isolated, focused upon themselves, anxious, or depressed. It creates a tunnel vision about the facts, leading to constricted or dichotomous thinking about the act. Due to strong identification, such reactions are relatively more frequent in media reports about suicide by a celebrity than a lay person.[5]

After celebrity suicides, a plethora of unverified stories on probable causes of suicide or foul play run amok. Many intimate details of the celebrity are exposed without considering the impact on the bereaved family and fans.

  Werther Effect Versus Papageno Effect Top

Scientific literature has documented the undesirable effects of sensational media coverage of celebrity suicides on the people. Evidence suggests increase in copycat suicide incidents after the media reports on celebrity suicide.[4] This has been described as the “Werther effect.” Sensational suicide reporting is likely to increase the contagion size. This effect is more prominent when the celebrity dying of suicide was young, an entertainer as compared to person from any other fields.[6]

A meta-analysis about association between media reporting suicide and its impact on people concluded that the adverse impact of such reports persists even after a year of a celebrity suicide. The people in the same age group as the deceased celebrity were more likely to report suicidal ideas. While this may not trigger a suicidal attempt, it increases vulnerability to a suicidal act. The repetitive media coverage may wrongly normalize suicide as an acceptable way of coping with difficulties. The meta-analysis also concluded that the victims of Werther effect may prefer the same method used by a celebrity to die.[7]

Media should choose to be constructive. Media coverage about persons who refrained from adopting suicidal plans and instead adopted positive coping mechanisms in adverse circumstances has been shown to have a suicide preventive effect. This has been called “Papageno effect.”[8] This is possible if the media informs the people about the role of mental illness and its treatment in suicide prevention. Whenever media covers suicide, details of suicide helpline numbers need to be shared to help people feeling suicidal seek help. Public needs to be informed that suicide does not resolve problems. It devastates the family of the victim. There is some evidence in literature that suicide reports without details of suicidal behavior lead to reduction in suicide incidence.[8]

The findings stated above have mostly come from the studies based on print media. The impact of media such as television with 24 × 7 reach with dramatic visuals is likely to be manifold.[4] Inflammatory videos can go viral over social media platforms. While dealing with suicidal deaths, the media needs to be vigilant as the verbal as well as nonverbal content of coverage can either promote or prevent suicidal behavior.

  Guidelines for Media Reporting of Suicide Top

Responsible media reporting of suicide is an effective population-level suicide prevention strategy. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2000, updated in 2017), the Indian Psychiatric Society (2014), and the Press Council of India (PCI, 2019) have framed guidelines for media coverage of suicide.[9],[10],[11] The PCI guidelines are primarily derived from the WHO guidelines and are applicable only for print media and news agencies. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), an independent body set-up by news broadcasters association for television news, is yet to frame guidelines for coverage of suicide.

Most of the scientific studies about the print and online media have concluded that recommended guidelines for suicide and mental health reporting are rarely followed.[12],[13] Harmful reporting practices (including prominent placement of news, details of deceased, details of the suicidal act, offering life events as related to suicide, mentioning in headlines, citation of suicide note, reference to suicide epidemic/social problems, and including a photograph of the deceased person) are quite common. Helpful reporting practices (such as mentioning link with mental health/substance use, dispel myths that suicide cannot be prevented, or there are no warning signs, opinion of mental health professionals, contact details of suicide helpline, or suicide prevention program) are rare.[12],[14]

  A Lost Opportunity? Top

The current media narrative is of a person caught in difficulties beyond his/her control with suicide as the only way out. The media coverage has been replete with photographs of the deceased person with the word “suicide” flashed prominently in media headlines. The quantum of media coverage after several weeks of the incident indicates the “newsworthiness” of the “story.” Unfortunately, this glorifies the victim and increases the suicidal risk of the vulnerable individuals.

The untimely death of this celebrity could have triggered a nationwide conversation on mental health.[13] It was a golden opportunity to convey the following key messages: suicide is preventable, expression of suicidal ideation is a “call for help,” and the role of gatekeepers in community. Instead, we have witnessed a deterioration into ad nauseam prime time speculative debates of the incident. This is in violation of the guidelines [15] and the PCI has taken serious note.[16] The National Human Rights Commission has also given serious reaction to the lack of suicide reporting guidelines from the NBSA for electronic media.[17]

  Silver Linings Top

There have been some positive developments also. Possible instances of copycat suicides were not publicized sensationally. However, still better approach is to focus upon mental health issues in such cases. Some media outlets shared details of suicide helplines while reporting about the incident. Within a week of the incident, a major news outlet reported about suicide survivors [18] which is likely to prevent suicide. The views of mental health professionals were sought [19] but got drowned in the sensationalist frenzy. The mental health professionals also need to exercise restraints from making unauthorized statements while interacting with media.[20]

Way forward

The NBSA needs to frame the guidelines for television news coverage of suicide. Suicide, being a public health issue, a responsible media coverage as per the guidelines, is an urgent requirement. It is important to note that the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 has already taken suicide out of the criminal realm and shifted suicidal behavior into the health sphere.[21] Media reporting of suicide should also shift from crime journalists to health and social journalists.[12] The media needs to self-regulate and harness its power to prevent suicide. Media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide. Mental health professionals need to reach out to the media to make people aware of scientific ways for early prevention of suicide and work collaboratively to ensure that guidelines for media coverage of suicide are followed in spirit.

  References Top

Amudhan S, Gururaj G, Varghese M, Benegal V, Rao GN, Sheehan DV, et al. A population-based analysis of suicidality and its correlates: Findings from the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16. Lancet Psychiatry 2020;7:41-51.  Back to cited text no. 1
LaFreniere N. Celebrity Influence on Today's Society. Medium; 2018. Available from: https://medium.com/@nlafreniere/celebrity-influence-on-todays-society-77321834955a [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 19].  Back to cited text no. 2
Bandura A, Huston AC. Identification as a process of incidental learning. J Abnorm Soc Psychol 1961;63:311-8.  Back to cited text no. 3
Gerbner G, Gross L. Living with television: The violence profile. J Commun 1976;26:173-99.  Back to cited text no. 4
Rosen G, Kreiner H, Levi-Belz Y. Public response to suicide news reports as reflected in computerized text analysis of online reader comments. Arch Suicide Res 2020;24:243-59.  Back to cited text no. 5
Fu KW, Yip PS. Long-term impact of celebrity suicide on suicidal ideation: Results from a population-based study. J Epidemiol Community Health 2007;61:540-6.  Back to cited text no. 6
Niederkrotenthaler T, Braun M, Pirkis J, Till B, Stack S, Sinyor M, et al. Association between suicide reporting in the media and suicide: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2020;368:m575.  Back to cited text no. 7
Niederkrotenthaler T, Voracek M, Herberth A, Till B, Strauss M, Etzersdorfer E, et al. Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects. Br J Psychiatry 2010;197:234-43.  Back to cited text no. 8
World Health Organization. Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. p. 18. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/258814/1/WHO-MSD-MER-17.5-eng.pdf?ua=1. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 9
Ramadas S, Kuttichira P, John CJ, Isaac M, Kallivayalil RA, Sharma I, et al. Position statement and guideline on media coverage of suicide. Indian J Psychiatry 2014;56:107-10.  Back to cited text no. 10
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Press Council of India. Guidelines Adopted by PCI on Mental Illness/Reporting on Suicide Cases. Available from: http://presscouncil.nic.in/Content/NewDetails/4014_7_WhatnewdDetails.aspx. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 11
Armstrong G, Vijayakumar L, Niederkrotenthaler T, Jayaseelan M, Kannan R, Pirkis J, et al. Assessing the quality of media reporting of suicide news in India against World Health Organization guidelines: A content analysis study of nine major newspapers in Tamil Nadu. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2018;52:856-63.  Back to cited text no. 12
Azad Y. Tale of the Failure of the Media, Police Forces-Analysis. Hindustan Times; 2020. Available from: https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/a-tale-of-the-failure-of-the-media-police-forces/story-JZsdNaXpvJmtK3qfaqcBSK.html. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 26].  Back to cited text no. 13
Chandra PS, Doraiswamy P, Padmanabh A, Philip M. Do newspaper reports of suicides comply with standard suicide reporting guidelines? A study from Bangalore, India. Int J Soc Psychiatry 2014;60:687-94.  Back to cited text no. 14
Ganesh R, Singh S, Mishra R, Sagar R. The quality of online media reporting of celebrity suicide in India and its association with subsequent online suicide-related search behaviour among general population: An infodemiology study. Asian J Psychiatr 2020:102380. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102380. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1876201820304937. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 15
Express News Service. Sushant Death: Don't Conduct Parallel Trial, Respect Privacy of Victim, Suspects, Says Press Council Advisory. Indian Express; 2020. Available from: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/sushant- death-dont-conduct-parallel-trial-respect-privacy-of- victim-suspects-says-press-council-advisory-6574362/. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 16
Das S. Aaj Tak 'Regrets', ABP News Denies, Zee News Mum on NHRC Rap Over Coverage of Actor's Death. The Wire; 2020. Available from: https://thewire.in/media/sushant-singh-rajput-death-aaj-tak-zee-news-abp-nhrc. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 31].  Back to cited text no. 17
Dhawan H. How I Defeated my Depression: Survivors Speak up. Times of India; 2020. Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-i-defeated-my-depression-survivors-speak-up/articleshow/76470457.cms. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 26].  Back to cited text no. 18
Lifestyle Desk. Link between Mental Health and Demeanour is Complicated; know from Experts. The Indian Express; 2020. Available from: https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/health/link-between-mental-health-and-demeanour-is-complicated -k0now-from-experts- 6549737/. [Last accessed on 2020 Aug 31].  Back to cited text no. 19
Singh OP. Aftermath of celebrity suicide-media coverage and role of psychiatrists. Indian J Psychiatry 2020;62:337.  Back to cited text no. 20
Vadlamani LN, Gowda M. Practical implications of Mental Healthcare Act 2017: Suicide and suicide attempt. Indian J Psychiatry 2019;61:S750-5.  Back to cited text no. 21
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