A strict no to sensationalising, repetition of suicide stories, say psychiatrists

‘Graphical explanation of methods and prominent display will lead to copycat suicides’

July 29, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 12:00 am IST - CHENNAI

Sensationalising death by suicide and its repeated projections in the media have become a cause for concern for psychiatrists.

“The fact is that whenever suicides are sensationalised and repeatedly projected, we know that there is an increase in suicides particularly in the young and vulnerable, who identify with the person or with the situation,” said Lakshmi Vijayakumar, psychiatrist and founder of Sneha, suicide prevention centre.

When methods are graphically explained and prominent display is provided, it leads to copycat suicides, scientifically called Werther Phenomenon, she said, adding: “When incidents are visually projected, it will cause an increase in the number of copycat suicides.”

Here is an instance of the impact of such repeated projections of suicides: A patient who consulted a psychiatrist said she became depressed on watching the repeated coverage in the media. “I saw the same images on repeat mode and I could not sleep,” she had told the doctor. Such projections impact the vulnerable, Dr. Lakshmi said, adding: “Media should not sensationalise suicides and stop projecting them repeatedly. Do not repeat the images, do not describe methods in detail and do not have screaming headlines. Give helpline numbers. Show the sufferings of the people around, such as family and friends, and [explain] how suicide impacts others. Every suicide impacts six to seven persons around them.”

P. Poorna Chandrika, director of Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said, “We are seeing the media sensationalising suicides. Guidelines on reporting suicides should be followed. The victim’s identity should not be disclosed and privacy should be given.”

En masse counselling 

She noted that one child should not be picked up for counselling. “A week before the examination and before the results, the entire class should be sensitised. We should tell them that whatever the results may be, everything will be fine. This should be done en masse and this is a huge exercise. If done regularly, intensively and continuously, it will be a boon,” she said, adding that mental health literacy was essential for every body, including parents, teachers and students.

Dr. Lakshmi said institutions should have a programme where students could reach out for mental health issues without being stigmatised. “They can develop peer counsellors and student mentors. Teachers should never punish a child in public. In case of any differences or difficulties, call the child alone and act after understanding why. Shame is an important factor associated with suicides in the young. The ego is fragile at that time and impulsivity will increase,” she said.

She said schools should have safe spaces where students could express themselves.

(Assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts is available on the State’s health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050)

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