Celebrity suicide is one of the highly publicized events in our country. Indians got a glimpse of this following an unfortunate incident where a popular Hindi film actor died of suicide. As expected, the media went into a frenzy as newspapers, news channels, and social media were full of stories providing minute details of the suicidal act; some even going as far as highlighting the color of the cloth used in the suicide as well as showing the lifeless body of the actor. All kinds of personal details were dug up, and speculations and hypotheses became the order of the day in the next few days that followed. In the process, reputations of many people associated with the actor were besmirched and their private and personal details were freely and blatantly broadcast and discussed on electronic, print, and social media. We understand that media houses have their own need and duty to report and sensationalize news for increasing their visibility (aka TRP), but such reporting has huge impacts on the mental health of the vulnerable population.
The impact of this was soon realized when many incidents of copycat suicide were reported from all over the country within a few days of the incident. Psychiatrists suddenly started getting distress calls from their patients in despair with increased suicidal ideation. This has become a major area of concern for the psychiatry community.
The Indian Psychiatric Society has been consistently trying to engage with media to promote ethical reporting of suicide. Section 24 (1) of Mental Health Care Act, 2017, forbids publication of photograph of mentally ill person without his consent. The Press Council of India has adopted the guidelines of World Health Organization report on Preventing Suicide: a resource for media professionals, which came out with an advisory to be followed by media in reporting cases of suicide. It includes points forbidding them from putting stories in prominent positions and unduly repeating them, explicitly describing the method used, providing details about the site/location, using sensational headlines, or using photographs and video footage of the incident. Unfortunately, the advisory seems to have little effect in the aftermath of celebrity suicides. Channels were full of speculations about the person's mental condition and illness and also his relationships and finances. Many fictional accounts of his symptoms and illness were touted, which is not only against the ethics but is also contrary to MHCA, 2017.
It went to the extent that the name of his psychiatrist was mentioned and quotes were attributed to him without taking any account from him. The Indian Psychiatric Society has written to the Press Council of India underlining this concern and asking for measures to ensure ethics in reporting suicide.
While there is a need for engagement with media to make them aware of the grave impact of negative suicide reporting on the lives of many vulnerable persons, there is even a more urgent need for training of psychiatrists regarding the proper way of interaction with media. This has been amply brought out in the aftermath of this incident. Many psychiatrists and mental health professionals were called by media houses to comment on the episode. Many psychiatrists were quoted, or “misquoted,” or “quoted out of context,” commenting on the life of a person whom they had never examined and had no “professional authority” to do so. There were even stories with byline of a psychiatrist where the content provided was not only unscientific but also way beyond the expertise of a psychiatrist. These types of viewpoints perpetuate stigma, myths, and “misleading concepts” about psychiatry and are detrimental to the image of psychiatry in addition to doing harm and injustice to our patients. Hence, the need to formulate a guideline for interaction of psychiatrists with the media is imperative.
In the infamous Goldwater episode, 12,356 psychiatrists were asked to cast opinion about the fitness of Barry Goldwater for presidential candidature. Out of 2417 respondents, 1189 psychiatrists reported him to be mentally unfit while none had actually examined him. This led to the formulation of “The Goldwater Rule” by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, but we have witnessed the same phenomenon at the time of presidential candidature of Donald Trump.
Psychiatrists should be encouraged to interact with media to provide scientific information about mental illnesses and reduction of stigma, but “statements to the media” can be a double-edged sword, and we should know about the rules of engagements and boundaries of interactions. Methods and principles of interaction with media should form a part of our training curriculum. Many professional societies have guidelines and resource books for interacting with media, and psychiatrists should familiarize themselves with these documents. The Press Council guideline is likely to prompt reporters to seek psychiatrists for their expert opinion. It is useful for them to have a template ready with suicide rates, emphasizing multicausality of suicide, role of mental disorders, as well as help available.
It is about time that the Indian Psychiatric Society formulated its own guidelines laying down the broad principles and boundaries governing the interaction of Indian psychiatrists with the media. Till then, it is desirable to be guided by the following broad principles:
- It should be assumed that no statement goes “off the record” as the media person is most likely recording the interview, and we should also record any such conversation from our end
- It should be clarified in which capacity comments are being made – professional, personal, or as a representative of an organization
- One should not comment on any person whom he has not examined
- Psychiatrists should take any such opportunity to educate the public about mental health issues
- The comments should be justified and limited by the boundaries of scientific knowledge available at the moment.
2. The Press Council of India. Guidelines Adopted by PCI on mental illness/Reporting on Suicide Cases Press Release. 2019
3. Cooke BK, Goddard ER, Werner TL, Cooke EO, Griffith EE. The risk and responsible role for psychiatrists who interact with media J Am Acad Psychiatry Law Online. 2014;42:459–68
4. American Psychiatric Association: The Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry. 1973
5. Vijayakumar L. Media Matters in suicide – Indian guidelines on suicide reporting Indian J Psychiatry. 2019;61:549–51