Experts are thinking of approaching the Press Council of India to request issuing national guidelines for covering suicides. India tops the world when it comes to the number of suicides committed each year. Recently, it trumped China in getting this dubious distinction. At the same time, there are barely three to four effective public intervention methods to help counter suicides. The nature of coverage of suicides in the media is one of them. Experts have opined that flagrant violation of basic norms while covering suicide cases has only worsened the situation in the country. At a time when the country has the maximum suicide cases in the world, it is also in dire need for guidelines to help curb the issue. Successful interventions like the one in Tamil Nadu a few years ago, is the way ahead, doctors said. “The impact of newspapers in suicide cases is tremendous. It is one of the three most effective interventions to help the avoidable public health problem of suicides,” Dr Soumitra Pathare, consultant psychiatrist and co-ordinator for Indian Law Society’s Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, said. “Whenever suicide cases have been sensationalised and reported, data has shown increase in the number of copy cat suicides. It is important to cover suicide cases sensitively, and let the health reporters write the stories. The story should give helpline numbers to help persons with suicidal tendency overcome it,” said Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, founder trustee of Sneha suicide prevention centre, Chennai.
India ahead of China
Till a few years ago, the dubious distinction of being number one in suicides went to China. Recently, India trumped it to become the country with maximum suicides. According to the World Health Organisation, over 2.5 lakh people committed suicide in India in 2012. The National Crime Records Bureau pegged it at nearly half the figure. It said, 1.35 lakh people committed suicide in India in 2012. WHO said that India’s suicide rate was 21.1 per 100,000 people.
“The rate of suicide in both India and China has dropped over the last decade. But the drop in rate in China has been so substantial that India has become number one in the world. The most important reasons for reduction of suicide rate in China have been migration to urban areas and improvement in the socio-economic condition of women. With migration to urban areas, access to prevalent methods of suicides like pesticides has reduced considerably. Moreover, if you observe closely, suicides among women have gone down substantially in China. The rate of suicides among men has not changed much. It is the reduction in women’s suicides that has brought the suicide rate down in China. The most important reason for that has been the women’s efforts in improving their own socio-economic power,” Dr Lakshmi said. In India, the drop in the rate of suicides has been marginal.
Certain interventions in terms of the state’s response and media reporting have gone a long way in curbing the number of suicides, experts pointed out. Giving example of the suicides after results of Standard Xth examination in Tamil Nadu, Dr Lakshmi spoke of a crucial intervention. Tamil Nadu was the first state in the country to allow re-examination of Standard Xth and XIIth within a month after the results. This showed a positive impact on the suicide cases in the state.
“We brought together the entire media of Tamil Nadu. We decided that during the exam results, the papers will carry positive stories about how to overcome failure. At the same time, we approached the state government and requested it that the borderline failure students be allowed to re-appear for the examination within a month of the result. The state government allowed it. Tamil Nadu became the first state to take this measure. The results were immediately visible. The number of suicides has come down to almost half now. The role of the newspapers was also very critical,” she said.
Whenever suicides are represented as a solution, or are sensationalised, it has a very negative impact. While writing reports about suicides, especially about celebrity suicides, journalists need to ask themselves at every step if it is necessary for them to dole out intricate details.
“There is a reason why we are so interested in newspapers. It is one of the very few effective public intervention tools that are currently available to us. The impact of the print medium is large. Other media generally emulate it. So, we are keen that there should be national guidelines to ensure proper coverage of suicide cases,” Dr Soumitra said. He added that this would be the beginning. Moving ahead, experts would want guidelines for the entire mass media including film-makers, TV serial makers, websites, etc. The guidelines would be a ready-made tool in the hands of the journalists to report suicides sensitively, so as to have dissuading effect on others with suicidal tendencies.
“Whenever suicides are represented as a solution, or are sensationalised, it has a very negative impact. While writing reports about suicides, especially about celebrity suicides, journalists need to ask themselves at every step if it is necessary for them to dole out intricate details. Detailed information about how a person committed suicide, which method did she use, only have a negative impact. The stories on suicides should be juxtaposed with stories of survivors who faced adversities and bounced back,” Dr Soumitra said.
The guidelines put forth by Sneha suicide prevention centre, a leading NGO, are:
Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide.
Avoid language which sensationalises or normalises 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.
Recognise that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide.
Other effective interventions
Other interventions which have proven to be effective in curbing suicides have been controlling access to lethal means of committing suicides; training the gatekeepers like teachers, police personnel, primary health care workers; reducing harmful use of alcohol; creating crisis helplines.