Death induced by suicide is a life cut short by self-directed violence. It finds its way in the newspapers and news TV channel segments readily. Often mediapersons reporting it do not know what an important part of the equation they are: With every suicide, there is an unfortunate but important duty laid on the shoulders of the mediaperson working on that news story. Will this opportunity be used to raise awareness, and perhaps help save lives from a similar fate? Or will it be just another sensationalised bit of news?
The choice is ours. We, the journalists, have important work to do in society as relayers of information. This must be done carefully, consciously, and sincerely.
But when it comes to mental health issues, particularly suicide, is it really the fault of the journalist, when he or she has never been trained in the subject?
Journalists have “beats” to report on; health is an important beat — public health, sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health, and other sub-specialties under the health beat.
However, there has been no formal training of Pakistani journalists to date on how to have mental health as a beat, and how to report on it. If a journalist has organically acquired a certain sensitivity to report on delicate issues, then he or she will apply it when reporting on suicide as well. Yet journalists may often get lost in the quagmire of details when reporting on a suicide. Details like the where, when and how. The opportunity of raising awareness on the issue is often lost in such reporting.
This year in June, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide just days apart. There have been relatively well known Pakistanis who died after committing suicide. This has shed media light on the subject. A study on ‘Newspaper Coverage of Suicide‘ done at Sindh University by Mahesar RA states that “One person, after every 16 minutes, dies not merely because of accident or any other disease but intentionally because of suicide [sic]”.
However, the journalists reporting on it in Pakistan are not really trained to do so. They are learning as they go along by trial and error. The subject of “suicide” — and mental health on the macro level — is staring at us in the face as an unavoidable news beat. But the lack of training leaves means we are making mistakes.
One of the most common mistakes is extreme positions taken by the media when reporting on suicide. One extreme is stigmatising and re-stigmatising both the person who committed suicide as well as the family. The sad music while reporting on suicide on tv, the hackneyed jargon, the nuanced but audible judgment in the news report — it all shows a lack of objectivity.
However, the other dangerous extreme is romanticising the act of suicide — of glorifying it, and instead of presenting facts about this act of extreme self-directed violence, perpetuating myths about it and calling it a “choice.” With the suicides of the aforementioned celebrities (Spade and Bourdain) experts began talking about the risk of triggering what is called the “Suicide Contagion.”
Experts of mental health affirm that suicide (of one or multiple well-known people), can lead to an increase in suicidal behaviour among people who are already at a risk of it. Thus, it is important that these news reports do not just mull over details and allude to it as a heroic act, but present the fact, which is that suicide is, in a majority of cases, linked to mental health issues.
Suicide almost always is not something that happens suddenly out of the blue. It has been considered by the person earlier. There may have been warning signs which people close to the person may have missed. An article published by International Journalists Network titled, Guidelines for Reporting about Suicide, aptly suggests to journalists that they must not suggest that a suicide was caused by a single event. “Suicide is complex, and is often the outcome of different causes, including mental illness — whether recognised and treated or not,” says the article.
Giving details of the method employed for the suicide may also contribute to the suicide contagion. Graphic details and photographs are not only disrespectful and insensitive to the deceased and the bereaved family, but also end up giving ideas to those who may be thinking on the same lines.
Care must be exercised even when writing an obituary for the person who left this world — whether as a journalist on a news platform or as a friend or peer on the many social media platforms. Be careful of the language you use. And most importantly, focus objectively on that person’s life instead of the methodology of death.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s then presidential nominee, Arif Alvi, had publicly suggested a readily available 24/7 psychiatric helpline in September 2018. In November 2018, the President, while addressing the 22nd International Psychiatric Conference organised by Pakistan Psychiatric Society (PPS) said that everyone should play his role for establishing a healthier society in the country. The government can and must play its role too in this regard, and the media can play its role by reminding policymakers and those in positions of power to recognise that mental health must be put on the forefront of the list of priorities when it comes to public health.
WHO’s 2014 report, “Preventing suicide: a global imperative” estimates that for every suicide there are at least 10–20 acts of Deliberate Self Harm (DSH). By this estimate, there may be between 130,000 to 270,000 acts of DSH in Pakistan annually. This means that there are signs before the actual act of suicide is completed. Journalists must include then, after consulting a mental health doctor or therapist, some points about how to recognise the signs that a person may be inching towards suicide, and what can be done to help such a person. The reader can also be directed towards Suicide Prevention Helplines.
Also read: A phone call away?
Reporting on suicide, and mental health issues, is a huge responsibility, as well as an opportunity to make a difference. These are not stories to be sensationalised. These are not lifestyle or entertainment stories. These are stories that come under the beat of “health”. Once journalists recognise this, the reporting will become more responsible. Most importantly, out of these dark and seemingly hopeless news stories, there can emerge a ray of hope — the hope that if reporting is done intelligently and carefully, it may help spread much needed awareness. It may help someone out there. It may help save a life.