The world’s interest in celebrity is at least a few centuries old. The vicarious pleasures we take in celebrity lives may be a celebration of our own unlived lives. The first noted celebrity – someone whose personal life was open to public speculation – arguably existed in Europe in the 1700s. Since then, mass media has kept the celebrity machine running.
Consuming visuals of lives that appear better than our own is the opioid for the masses. We laugh with them, we deify them, and under the best of circumstances, we identify with their vulnerabilities and emerge stronger ourselves. We place them on the pedestals we aspire to. We also grieve their deaths from deeply personal places.
The matter of celebrity suicides isn’t new–- but are uniquely painful each time they makes the news. Many are now mourning the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, who was a young, successful actor. He went to an engineering college and dared to drop out to pursue his passion. He was, in a way, living the dream many boys from small-town India dream of. He seemed to have a love for life and the universe, which he shared in his interviews and social media posts.
While the media helps keep the celebrity machine running, shaping our very lives through this lens, their coverage of this particular celebrity death was irresponsible, and, as it turns out, illegal.
Good journalism and reporting suicide are not mutually exclusive endeavours. There is plenty of evidence about what kind of information in these situations is more harmful than others. Mental health organisations, both national and international, have comprehensive guidelines for suicide reporting. Unfortunately, most media outlets do not adhere to these guidelines.
There are essentially three things that need to be protected when suicide is reported: the dignity and identity of the deceased, the privacy of those they left behind, and the likelihood of vulnerable individuals being triggered by the reporting.
Protecting the dignity and identity of the deceased
All guidelines discourage revealing the identity of the deceased. They recommend against sensational headlines, although this nebulous term does little to specify what exactly constitutes sensationalism. We may venture as far as to suggest that “anti-clickbait” is the only acceptable kind of news coverage of suicide. Our conceptualisation of an “anti-clickbait” headline reflects the conscious and active choice made by those reporting a death to discourage readers or viewers from wanting to know the details of the death.
Society still places significant stigma around suicide, and protecting the identity of the deceased is one way of giving them dignity in death. Whether celebrity culture can make room for such anonymity is an ethical concern journalists must be brave enough to face.
Protecting the privacy of those left behind
Much has been written about the toll of celebrity culture on their private lives. They are bereft of privacy even in death. However, death by suicide makes the people in the private lives of celebrities uniquely vulnerable. Suicide survivors, in psychotherapeutic terms, are people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The grief of suicide survivors is unique because it inherently carries the guilt of having failed in protecting or understanding the one they lost.
Invading their privacy by making their grief public prevents them from processing this grief, and might be an act of rubbing salt on their emotional wounds.
In addition, suicide survivors are at a greater risk of dying by suicide themselves. Having a family member who died by suicide is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide. Protecting the friends and family of the deceased is not only a moral imperative for the media, but there is also evidence to show that it can prevent further harm.
Protecting vulnerable people from the effects of celebrity suicides
Suicide remains a major public health problem in India, killing more young women than any other cause, and being a major cause of mortality among all age groups. Years of research have shown that wide publicity of death by suicide of famous people can increase community prevalence of suicide in their aftermath.
Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, vividly described the suicide of its lead character. Young men of the era began to copy the methods of the novel, down to the colour of the clothes of the character. They would often leave the book open at the page of Werther’s death at the site of their deaths. Werther phenomenon is one of the earliest known examples of what is today known as suicide contagion.
We broadly know of the people who may be more vulnerable to such contagion: people with underlying mental health challenges, especially if they consume alcohol or narcotics, and people who emotionally identify with the deceased being reported about are especially vulnerable. Similarities in social and economic levels with the deceased, or even living in the same geographical region increases vulnerability. The days immediately following these reports usually witness the highest number of deaths by similar means.
Duty to protect
While reporting facts without bias is often considered a central tenet of journalism, its duty to inform and protect cannot be neglected. National and international guidelines on reporting suicides recommend that suicide reporting be used as a tool to promote mental well-being and increase awareness about mental health needs.
Non-stigmatising language that shifts the blame away from the deceased, and promotes help-seeking can go a long way in preventing harm. The vivid description of methods of suicide sensationalise the issue, and must not be publicised. Every attempt must be made to educate the public about suicide and mental health help locally available. Journalists must also recognise the impact of such reporting on their mental health and seek help.
The Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 not only decriminalises suicide but also makes it clear that the identifying details of individuals with mental illness must not be made public by the media. With celebrity suicides, it is a tricky path to tread, but sharing details of mental health diagnoses without consent is a clear breach of the law.
The act also mandates the government to promote mental health and suicide prevention awareness by using the media. The Press Council of India has adopted norms for suicide prevention, but the universal implementation of these norms seems a long way away. Not adhering to these norms may subject suicide reporting to review by the Press Council.
As images of Sushant Singh Rajput flood the internet, it is our collective responsibility not only to give his life’s work the dignity it deserves, but also to create a space for conversation about suicide prevention. Even as celebrity culture has become an unmissable aspect of modern life, we must hold the journalists and media houses that thrive on this culture accountable.
Dr Sucheta Tiwari is an Oxford graduate and psychiatrist in London. Dr Ruha Shadab is a Harvard graduate, based in Boston.