Indian media’s representation of suicide is often inaccurate. Here’s why

News stories often report only the last negative event experienced by the deceased. The causes of suicide are much more complex.

ByAbhilasha Das
Indian media’s representation of suicide is often inaccurate. Here’s why
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Every 40 seconds, one person dies by suicide globally, and a large number of these suicides occur in India. Consequentially, news stories reporting cases of suicide are almost a daily occurrence.

The World Health Organisation lists responsible media reporting as one of the key suicide prevention strategies. It has issued guidelines for the producers of news to follow, such as advising against reducing the cause of the suicides to only one event. However, Indian newspapers and television channels rarely pay heed.

For instance, in the last couple of months, leading newspapers have specified reasons – such as parents refusing to buy a new dress, or refusing to spend a large sum of money on a videogame – as the cause for suicides. This observation is reflected in the results of the fourth edition of Project Siren by the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, which reports that 71.7 percent of articles written about suicide in the first quarter of 2021 attribute it to one reason.

This is a matter of concern because publicly discussing suicide as being a result of one cause is harmful to suicide prevention efforts in many ways.

Firstly, such news reports represent suicide inaccurately. Suicide is an outcome of a complicated interaction of many reasons. News stories often describe only the most recent negative event experienced by the person who died. But while this event may have acted as the last straw that finally led to the suicide, it is in no way the complete cause.

According to the comprehensive integrated motivational-volitional model, or IMV model, particular vulnerabilities put one at risk of suicide. Some examples are having a mental disorder, having experienced a difficult childhood, and having biological trouble regulating the brain chemical called serotonin which is responsible for maintaining a stable mood. The more vulnerable one is, the more likely it is that stressful events, such as losing a job or a fight with a family member, will severely disturb the person and possibly lead to thoughts of suicide.

Dr Ananya Sinha, a consultant clinical psychologist in Bengaluru, explained this further. “Suicide is a complex, multifactorial phenomenon. Suicide is usually the result of an interaction between a number of proximal and distal factors,” she said. “Distal factors refer to predisposition such as genetic factors and exposure to early-life adversity. In contrast, proximal factors act as precipitants, such as recent life events and recent psychopathology, including mood disorder or current substance abuse. We need to understand that suicide cannot be caused by a singular event or incident.”

Secondly, newspapers emphasise the negative event while ignoring its emotional impact on the person who attempted suicide. American clinical psychologist Edwin Shneidman coined the word “psychache” to describe the intense anguish and emotional pain that he proposed causes suicide.

Furthermore, in the IMV model, the motivation behind suicide is explained as a pathway of first feeling defeated, humiliated, and then trapped. Using problem-solving or coping skills may become very tough, and thoughts of not belonging anywhere and being a burden on others can overwhelm the mind. This pathway looks different for each individual. So, we can gather that it is not possible to understand the reasons behind a suicide without understanding the individual's mental state at that time. And it is one of the greatest tragedies of suicide that the only person who could have shared the exact feelings and thoughts that they experienced often does not survive to tell their tale.

Furthermore, looking at only one reason for suicide makes it seem like a simple problem. Often, the cause is worded in a way that trivialises the situation and leads the reader to assume that the suicide was merely an error in judgement made by a possibly unintelligent person.

However, suicide is not just an individual issue. A lot of what contributes to suicides comes from outside the person. For instance, the country's social climate has a role to play, as seen by marginalised groups such as youth belonging to the LGBTQ community facing a significantly higher risk of suicide. Accessibility and quality of mental healthcare available in the community is another essential factor. In India, there are not enough mental healthcare professionals to meet the population’s needs, which poses a considerable risk, especially for suicide, because timely help saves lives. For the same reason, the ability and willingness of people around the individual feeling suicidal to offer support have a significant impact.

Thus, preventing suicides is not the responsibility of only the person who feels suicidal. The entire global community needs to work together to create a world that is informed and sensitive to the risk of suicide.

Harishankar Moosath, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Christ University, said, “One promising step towards this for our nation has been the decriminalization of suicide by the Mental Healthcare Act 2017. The intent has been to address the stigma associated with the topic and to encourage people to talk about their distress openly.”

In addition, the impact of suicide is not restricted to an individual’s death. Around 135 people are affected by the loss of a person to varying degrees. Some, such as close family members and friends, will live with grief for a very long time. Being touched by suicide is often an unexpected, confusing and lonely experience. There is frequently a tendency to blame oneself and feel guilty for not being able to prevent the death. The one-cause narrative of suicide propagated by the news can strengthen such feelings of guilt, especially when the reported reason mentions other individuals, such as the deceased’s parents or spouse. It can also cause others to vilify and blame them, adding to their difficulties in coming to terms with the loss.

Aakaash Chiramal, a counseling psychologist in Mumbai, explained, “The family members of the deceased individual are left to answer questions which they are unaware of themselves. This denies them the space to grieve the loss that they have experienced.”

Behind every suicide, there is a web of biological, psychological, social, and environmental reasons. To put it simply, we do not have the complete answer to why people take their own lives. But what is known for sure is that every suicide is a tragedy, and it is everybody’s duty to try and prevent it. More news reporters need to embrace this responsibility and acknowledge their power by aiding India’s suicide prevention efforts.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, we urge you to seek help. Please call one of the helpline numbers listed here or contact a mental health professional.

Also Read :
Are top Indian newspapers complying with guidelines on suicide reporting?
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