Today, I write this article from a place that is all too familiar for many people like me. These are sensitive times for those who have a history of mental illness or those who have past experience of suicidal tendencies or attempts. Ever since news broke of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide last Sunday, a lot of things have been said, a lot of videos have been created and a lot of discussions have been held. These have always come from a place of personal opinion, personal feelings and our own experiences. I will be honest. I have a lot of things going on in my mind right now as well.
The death of a celebrity, especially one that you find relatable is always hard to take on. I am always left with this feeling of, ‘What if that was me?”. The same happened when I read the news of Chester Bennington’s suicide in 2017. The same thing is happening now. But this article isn’t about me. This isn’t about my personal feelings or opinions. I want to share something that is based in data and research.
The WHO and APA have certain guidelines on how the suicide of a celebrity should be covered. It includes many things like not reporting the method of suicide, not speculating on the causes, don’t sensationalize it, don’t offer it as a solution to problems etc. There is always a question about why these guidelines exist. What does it matter whether we share the method of suicide or not? What could it possibly do? It won’t kill someone right?
THE WERTHER EFFECT
It can and it probably has. In psychology, there is this idea called the Werther Effect. The Werther Effect is when widespread circulation of a suicide, fictional or real, leads to more imitative suicides in the social surroundings. It is named after the main character of a novel that came out in 1774, Werther. The main character towards the end of the novel kills himself. As soon as the book was published, it became very popular. Men who were similar to Werther started dressing like him and talking like him. Soon copycat suicides followed. A similar thing was seen after the release of 13 Reasons Why as well. It led to an uptick in the people searching for ways to kill themselves on Google and various copycat suicides, similar to the one portrayed in the show also came to light.
Something similar is now happening in India.
WERTHER EFFECT IN INDIA
We are already in a very delicate position psychologically due to the 3-month lockdown. A news like this has invariably impacted many people. Sadly, the impact is actually causing more deaths.
As soon as the news of Sushant’s death broke, almost every media outlet reported the method of suicide. Some even went as far as reporting the colour of means used. Others started looking into the causes. It soon became a rat race of who comes up with new information first. The guidelines of suicide reportage were treated as mere suggestions. Think what would happen if people start treating the COVID-19 prevention guidelines as opinions or suggestions which are optional.
Within hours, the method of suicide was being broadcasted by every news channel. Speculation started on the causes; sensitivity and empathy took a back seat. This was a dirty race. By the end of the day, some people started circulating distressing images on social media. One newspaper even printed the body of the deceased on their front page! And then defended it!
When reporters in my own city started going down this road of insensitivity, I tried to stop it. I tried to help people understand that speculating on the causes of a suicide, or sharing the method of a suicide publicly can lead to copycat suicides. But that was dismissed as a difference in opinion. Sadly, science is not a matter of opinion.
THE REAL LIFE IMPACT
Today, I want to show you the effect that coverage had. The real-life impact of irresponsible coverage of a suicide. Here are the Google Search trends three days before and after the news first broke.
The graph above is the Google Search Trends on How To ____ Myself in India between 10-17 June 2020 in India. The popularity of the search term increased by more than 100% after the news first broke.
The following graph will show you the Search Trends for ‘How to Suicide’ between the same dates.
See that spike? That’s people actually looking up ways to kill themselves. The rise is so apparent that you can actually give a timeline on when the news broke just by looking at the charts. The smaller peaks you see are the ones between 2300-0500hrs. Night time is terrifying for those who are suicidal. People are actually looking up ways to kill themselves because of how the media has gone about reporting this suicide. How much are you willing to bet that one of these people looking this up actually ended up dying?
The Werther Effect is more common in old and young populations (Not middle age populations.) and while Psychologists are still trying to figure out why it happens, the existence of this effect has been documented over and over. (Read the work of Steven Stack and Madelyn Gould for more info on this phenomenon). This has led to some considering suicide as a ‘contagion’ which spreads in clusters.
NEED FOR RESPONSIBLE SUICIDE REPORTING
In the modern age of social media, the burden of following scientific guidelines doesn’t just lie on the big media companies (although they have a larger audience). The responsibility is also on social media influencers and social media reporters to be responsible in what they share. Digital media companies with their large following and high organic reach need to be responsible in what they share. Even us, the individuals should be responsible in what we share and what we choose not to.
Unconfirmed reports of copycat suicides have already started coming in and there will still be many more such deaths which will not be reported. The people who were similar to the deceased in age, social class, gender etc are at a higher risk of killing themselves. Those who found the person relatable to themselves are also at risk for suicide. It is time for us to be mindful of those around us and ourselves.
Ever since the news broke, there have been many blog posts written. It is as if everyone has become a psychologist or a motivational speaker. In the meantime, the qualified psychologists and psychiatrists are not made a part of the conversation. And this is the effect of that. When scientific guidelines are treated as optional opinions, people die.
In case you have been feeling suicidal, or feeling like your mental well-being has been impacted, take some time off of media. It includes social media as well. You aren’t in feeling like every moment you spend consuming media makes things worse. There are many like you.
In conclusion, all I can say is that a suicide is a very complex phenomenon which we should treat with a lot of restraint and control. There is a very thin line between victimizing/glorifying a person who died by suicide and dismissing their actions. We should be careful when walking that line. The graphs above will show you why.