Guidelines or Lifelines?

Divya Iyer, I Year B.S.W

Suicidal ideation and poor mental health have always been causes of concern. Unlike physical wounds, though, mental aches and pains are much harder to pinpoint and medicate, since the symptoms could vary from individual to individual. We are told that we can never truly know what difficulties someone faces just by observing them or interacting with them, because there will always be things about themselves that they keep hidden. We don’t always know what plagues people, what battles they fight, how they survive and have faith day after day. Anyone could be suicidal, and we could be entirely unaware of it. Given this scenario, what is the media’s role to responsible reporting and representation of suicide?

The “Suicide Prevention Guidelines,” as they are called, are a series of rules that ought to be followed when the media represents and portrays suicide. Of course, one could argue that “art is art” and should therefore be free of censorship, which I personally believe is also fine, except, in that case, the artists ought to supplement their work with appropriate trigger warnings. For instance, if I were to write a poem about how suicide is just like falling asleep, it would be good of me to mention that I do not condone or support suicide, and even provide suicide helplines and resources for people battling against such urges.

People are different, and everyone’s coping mechanisms vary. While some people derive comfort from knowing that other people go through the same mental battles as them, and may go as far as to actively find material and artwork depicting suicide in order to understand what they are going through, others will find such material and content disturbing, potentially triggering and harmful.

More than an issue of censorship, it’s an issue of clarity. Suicide should be represented by media, people should make art about it, people should talk about it and remove the stigma and shame associated with feeling that way. However, bringing these issues to light should be done with sensitivity and understanding.

According to WHO and IASP’s guidelines for media’s representation of suicide, one must

  • Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide
  • Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
  • Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
  • Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
  • Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
  • Word headlines carefully
  • Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
  • Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
  • Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
  • Provide information about where to seek help
  • Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide

It’s important for us to note that suicide and such issues are deeply personal, and when we misrepresent them, lives are at stake, quite literally. The term “copycat suicide” has been coined in order to refer to those suicides which take place in response to other suicides, often employing the same method of self-destruction. The affected people are usually so mentally triggered by a suicide that they emulate it. A group of people all committing suicide in the same manner, possibly triggered by the same event, is called a “suicide cluster.”

The earliest recorded case of suicides caused by representation in the media is the response to Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), as early as 1774. The protagonist of the book shoots himself after being rejected by the woman that he loves, and after this book’s publication, several young men killed themselves in the same manner. This resulted in the book being banned in several areas. This also resulted in the coining of a technical term, “Werther effect,” used to define copycat suicides, since “copycat suicide” is a less formal term and is not always appropriate in such serious contexts.

The answer to this is not to hush things up and pretend that suicides do not occur. We must speak about this issue, we must represent it, but we must do so with care and consideration. Hopefully, there will come a day when suicide isn’t followed by such stigma, and people suffering from suicidal tendencies can talk freely about their struggles, and are treated with respect and sensitivity for doing so. Until such an understanding takes place, all we can do is remember that we never know what is going on in someone else’s head, and to offer our respect to people unconditionally.

Sometimes a smile can save a life. It’s not rocket science.


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