|Year : 2020 | Volume
| Issue : 3 | Page : 169-171
Celebrity suicide: A case for collaboration between media and mental health professionals
Thanapal Sivakumar1, Hitesh Khurana2
1 Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, IMH, PGIMS, Pt. BD Sharma UHS, Rohtak, Haryana, India
|Date of Submission||02-Sep-2020|
|Date of Decision||02-Sep-2020|
|Date of Acceptance||02-Sep-2020|
|Date of Web Publication||28-Sep-2020|
Dr. Hitesh Khurana
Department of Psychiatry, IMH, PGIMS, Pt. BD Sharma UHS, Rohtak - 124 001, Haryana
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
|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 7];36:169-71. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2020/36/3/169/296261
| Introduction|| |
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.
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  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|| |
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. 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. 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.
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|| |
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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. 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|| |
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.,, 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., 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.,
| A Lost Opportunity?|| |
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. 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  and the PCI has taken serious note. The National Human Rights Commission has also given serious reaction to the lack of suicide reporting guidelines from the NBSA for electronic media.
| Silver Linings|| |
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  which is likely to prevent suicide. The views of mental health professionals were sought  but got drowned in the sensationalist frenzy. The mental health professionals also need to exercise restraints from making unauthorized statements while interacting with media.
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. Media reporting of suicide should also shift from crime journalists to health and social journalists. 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.
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