Various studies have shown that sensationalising a suicide case can cause distress to viewers/readers, and even result in copycat suicides.

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Health Mental Health Wednesday, July 27, 2022 - 14:38

The recent death of the class 12 student in a private school in Kallakurichi resulted in extensive news coverage of the incident, but not all of it was sensitive. Many media outlets in the course of sensationalising the case, speculated reasons for the child’s death. While the school has been alleging the girl died by suicide and reports carried details about the ‘method’ and purported suicide note, her family has been alleging foul play. These lapses in reporting on suicide responsibly can have far reaching social consequences, and one of them are ‘copycat suicides’.

Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a Chennai-based consultant psychiatrist and founder of suicide prevention centre, SNEHA, explains that copycat suicides are suicides that are closely related to a suicide that was covered sensationally in the news. The closeness can be in the time of the suicides or the method of the suicide. “Young people are more vulnerable to copycat suicides because they either identify with the person who had died by suicide or the cause behind their death,” Dr Lakshmi adds.

“Mainstream media sensationalises suicide cases sometimes. In such cases, the vivid descriptions of the method of suicide and the visuals stay in some people’s minds which can cause distress. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that sensationalist reporting can result in copycat suicides and even exacerbate them,” Dr Lakshmi adds. The latter is especially true in the case of celebrity suicides.

For instance, after the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput in 2020, reportedly by suicide, a lot of the media (especially TV channels) left no stone unturned to speculate on the matter, possible way of suicide, his mental health diagnosis etc. with no regard for sensitivity or privacy. In the aftermath, several attempts and suicides were found to have used methods similar to what was being reported in the media about Sushant. A 2015 study that looked into the effect of mass media on copycat suicides in South Korea concluded that there is a “strong media effect between the number of media reports following the days after celebrity suicides and subsequent copycat suicides.” It suggested “improving media reporting and implementing preventative interventions for vulnerable populations” to address the same. 

Sensitive ways for media to report on suicide

Suicide Prevention and Implementation Researach Iniative (SPIRIT), an international research organisation, had issued a set of guidelines that can be followed by media organisations while reporting on suicide to ensure that the coverage is responsible, sensitive, and does not trigger its readers and/or viewers. By following these, the media can play a role in minimising copycat suicides.

The guidelines specify that suicide must not be treated as a crime story, and that details of the method of suicide are not divulged or sensationalised. The overall approach to suicide coverage must be suicide prevention.

Stories on suicide must include suicide prevention resources (like helplines) in case people feel distressed and reading and/or watching such news stories triggers them further. Media houses can also include information and facts that debunk common myths and misconceptions that exist around suicide.

Speaking to TNM, Ranjitha Gunasekaran, Assistant Resident Editor at the The New Indian Express, said that it is important for media organisations to use language that does not criminalise suicide. This would mean using terms like ‘died by suicide’ instead ‘committed suicide’. She said, “While speaking to crime reporters, police might describe the method of death in great detail. This is often repeated by the reporters and published. This can be triggering to people who have suicidal ideation. So, sensitisation about suicide must include police officers.” She added that it is important to add suicide helpline numbers into news stories and packages after ensuring that they are functional.

Ranjitha also adds that if there is a suicide note, reporters could allude to it instead of quoting directly from it. “However, we may take a call to quote from it if the suicide is related to a structural or systemic issue, like in the case of Rohith Vemula’s death. There is a balance between how a suicide that is related to a structural issue and a suicide caused by personal reasons are reported. Overall, the coverage must be as sensitive as possible,” she says.

How you can help someone in distress

Dr Lakshmi also points out that suicides are rarely a surprise. In most cases, a person having suicidal thoughts has communicated the same to a loved one but is dismissed or not given adequate support. Very often, they are given superficial suggestions or solutions like being asked to ‘take a break’. She adds, “They must also be encouraged to seek professional help. The best thing we can do is to spend some time with them. When a person is suicidal, they often have low self-esteem and when we listen to them, it helps them realise that they are not alone,” Dr Lakshmi says.

That said, there is no one size fits all approach that works for everyone experiencing mental health issues and/or suicide ideation, and not all suicides may be due to underlying mental health reasons even though the latter contribute to a significant number of suicides. Apart from helping them access mental health resources and healthcase, it may also be a good idea to ask the person going through distress about what they need.

Read: No one size fits all: What works for people dealing with suicidal thoughts

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organizations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.   

Tamil Nadu

State health department's suicide helpline: 104

Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh

Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930

Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Karnataka

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Kerala

Maithri: 0484 2540530

Chaithram: 0484 2361161

Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

Telangana

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.

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