It has been over four months since Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his apartment in Mumbai. The media coverage that has followed went from giving out sensitive details about his reported suicide, to privacy-breaching speculations about his mental health, relating it to consumption of ‘drugs’, to a larger conspiracy of a drug ring in Bollywood. While the ethics of all of the above are questionable, the coverage of mental health is one of the most painful travesties, given how much time, effort and advocacy it has taken to make mental health coverage somewhat sensitive in the mainstream media.
The media speculated whether Sushant was ‘depressed’ or ‘bipolar’, interviewed the mental health practitioner he was reportedly consulting, asked other people – including his ex-girlfriend Ankita Lokhande – about his mental health, and even dissected videos of him on national television to ascertain whether he ‘looked depressed’.
“There was no regard or respect for the privacy and dignity of the person who just died,” points out Dr Manika Ghosh, professor of psychology and director of Bengaluru-based Eudaimonic Centre for Positive Change and Wellbeing. Mental health practitioners also say that this sort of reporting perpetuated several harmful stereotypes and myths that they and other advocates have been working hard for years to dispel.
“The coverage was quite atrocious,” says Paras, founder-director of The Alternative Story, which provides affordable therapy options. “Many news outlets used terms like 'committed' suicide though the discourse has evolved to saying 'died by' suicide. They revealed details about how he allegedly died; and even if it was a suicide, reporting on the method of suicide is against the guidelines. But all of this was forgotten because it was a high interest, high profile death.”
It was only two years ago that the Mental Healthcare Act that decriminalises suicide was notified, after years of awareness building. Such regressive reporting on suicide, as though it is a crime, is a setback, say mental health practitioners.
Further, the media should have been even more careful given that this was a celebrity death, reportedly a suicide, say experts. Existing research shows that celebrity suicides can spawn ‘copycat’ suicide attempts, especially in immediate time after the celebrity death is reported. An analysis of 20 studies in the US found that suicide rates among public rose between 8% to 18% in the two months after a celebrity suicide. This increased further where the media described the celebrity’s method of suicide – suicides among public using the same method rose by 30%.
Both Paras and Dr Manika say that some media naming Sushant’s psychiatrist, accessing her statement to the police and airing the details was also a massive breach of ethics. “These details are bound by confidentiality between the mental health practitioner and the patient. Broadcasting them to the public purely for voyeurism could have a very real impact in making people wary of consulting mental health practitioners over fears of their privacy being breached.”
Tanmoy Goswami, a mental health journalist and suicide prevention advocate, is concerned with the media using morbid stereotypes to talk about people with mental illness. While mental health issues like depression can potentially lead to suicide ideation and suicide, a majority of people who live with depression do not take their lives.
“Research in India shows that mental illness only has a role in about 50% of suicides. But the media generally has a tendency to link suicide with depression. This paints a very bleak picture for those living with mental health issues like depression, as though suicide is the only possible trajectory for them as well. This is far from the truth,” Tanmoy says.
Paras adds that this could have been an opportunity by the media to talk about mental health, depression, support spaces, urban loneliness, isolation, and methods of management and prevention. “Instead, harmful myths were perpetuated, it was questioned how someone who looked happy, who was successful, who spoke against suicide in his own film could take this step.”
Many channels spent hours replaying past videos of Sushant with friends and family, asking panelists with no mental health expertise whether someone who looked ‘happy’ could have been depressed. Later, another angle was pushed to speculate on Sushant's mental health - that Rhea was procuring marijuana for him and that was somehow linked to his reported depression. This was backed by almost no empirical evidence, and only contributed to Rhea's witch hunt.
Such coverage is misleading and can be dangerous as viewers are fed myths that can hamper the progress made in mental health reporting. Tanmoy says that the media once again legitimised what those struggling with mental health issues are told over and over again – “If you don’t look the part, then your illness is not real.”
Given the insensitive coverage around Sushant’s death, Dr Manika, Paras and Tanmoy all saw people around them reaching out to them with feelings of distress and increased anxiety due to the coverage around Sushant’s death.
“There was no consideration given to the fact that we are already living in a very difficult time in history, and that people might already be disturbed and struggling more than usual. I wish the media thought about what sort of impact the cacophony they raised would have on people who are already depressed or anxious,” Dr Manika says. Mental health practitioners had started reporting increasing symptoms in their patients as well as more cases of mental health struggles months ago, when India was still under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not just on viewers, Tanmoy points out that this was likely a traumatic experience for several journalists in newsrooms as well. “With job security at stake due to the pandemic, many might not have had the luxury to speak up within their organisations even if they opposed such coverage as well. Additionally, what sort of message was sent to young journalists by normalising such reportage on mental health?”
Despite the questionable nature and voyeurism of this coverage, a precedent was set, public interest generated. “Because of this, even media outlets that may not have wanted to report on it this way, had to. The demand and supply loop with lowered standards just made it harder to do good journalism around mental health,” Paras says.
He also expresses concern about what normalizing such reporting could mean for celebrity deaths or suicides in the future. “I worry that now, the bigger the star, the worse the coverage might be if there is a mental health angle. It is also worth noting that this sort of interest and ‘concern’ is around a dominant caste, dominant group male actor, compared to the hundreds of Dalit and farmer suicides that happen every single day.”
Tanmoy is more optimistic about the larger picture of mental health reporting. “The entire Sushant Singh case has snowballed into something so emotive, but I’d like to believe that we haven’t regressed altogether. There were several outlets that stuck to 'died by' suicide, and did not mention the manner of death. With the social media scrutiny too, editors have no excuse now to be ignorant about sensitive mental health reporting; there are guidelines available in several languages too.”
He also states that the media has a significant role to play in seeing suicide from an intersectional perspective, and not just as a health issue. “We have students, farmers, women killing themselves for various reasons. Farmer suicides cannot be talked about purely from a mental health perspective; issues like debt need to be considered. For students, it’s exams, bullying, peer pressure. Structural problems need structural solutions and the media cannot be preaching in vacuum. We cannot just tell people ‘don’t die’, we have to tell them living is worth it.”
If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584
Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222
Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers
State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200
SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 am and 7 pm)
Aasara offers support to individuals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726
Click here for working helplines across India.