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A Year On, A Reminder Of Lessons from Sushant Singh Rajput’s Death

It’s been a year since Sushant’s death. Has anything changed in the way media covers suicides and mental illnesses?

Updated
Mind It
4 min read
On 14 June last year, 34-year-old Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide.
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It was a Sunday afternoon in the middle of June when my phone buzzed with a notification about Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The world had already started to feel a bit dystopian amid Covid. But the demise of a young actor felt deeply personal and terrible in a year of bad headlines.

On 14 June last year, 34-year-old Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. The sudden death of a talented, young actor would be shocking for anyone. But nothing quite so appalling as the frenzied coverage of his death, the faux investigations and smear campaigns by the media, which swelled even after weeks after his death.

With all ethics and decency thrown out the window for numbers, this was no doubt, a new low for Indian journalism. It laid bare everything that was wrong with media in this country, and its remarkable ineptitude in reporting suicides and mental health issues.

This important video with Dr Soumitra Pathare on why suicide language matters is still relevant:

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Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide. Avoid explicit description of the method used. Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage. Word headlines carefully. Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides. Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide. These are some of the guidelines by the World Health Organization for reporting on suicides. Almost all media houses, especially television news channels, violated the rules and turned his death into a circus. The high moral ground even few journalists claimed slipped from beneath their feet.

From reconstructing crime scenes to flashing images of the body; from getting into the gory details of the method of suicide to providing the place, location of death; from using words like "committed suicide" to plastering big, bold triggering words on the front pages of newspapers; from television anchors appointing themselves judge and jury to encouraging reporters to hound the family and friends; from running pointless social media campaigns to frivolous accusations of black magic. The only thing that was left out was a panel discussion.

It went on day after day, week after week, with the media feeding off TRPs and the public addicted to the real life soap, distracted from the pressing issues at the time. The non-stop coverage was not as much about Sushant's achievements and fond memories but a sickening, stomach-churning parallel trial in the name of journalism and 'breaking news'.

What should have been a good starting point to talk about suicides and mental health issues, the narrative shifted to alleged drug nexus in Bollywood, vilification of his actor-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty - her every action weaponized against her.

Even when Rhea said she helped Sushant seek aid for his mental illness, the narrative painted her as manipulative and a subsequent targeted onslaught of abuse followed by determining guilt without proof. She was scrutinized threadbare, giving her no room, no agency to grieve the death of her loved one.

It's been a year since Sushant's death. Has anything changed in the way media covers suicides and mental health issues? Yes, some have made efforts to make improvements, largely the indepedent digital media. But larger organisations continue to flout norms every now and then, still continue to read into "cryptic" posts on social media and look back at details that shouldn't be anyone's concern.

There has been more coverage of mental health issues post his death. Some media organisations have become a bit alert of using the term “died by suicide”. Some have been exercising caution in using images that are crass or could be triggering for people. A few have been using people-first language like “persons living with mental illness” or “persons living with depression”. It is a start, but it’s not enough.

Many still use sensationalist language and give too many details about the suicide, discuss the method, almost suggesting it. Yes, it could feel restricting for many journalists who would go to any length to uncover the truth, but it's caring about the fact that their reporting may have an impact on somebody's life that should be the focus.

Educate journalists. Move suicide reporting from crime reporters to health reporters. Focus on the life of the person and not on the manner of death. Be careful about the tone of the article and include helpline numbers because reading about suicides can trigger those thoughts in someone who is vulnerable. It’s important to remember that what good journalism is otherwise may not resonate with reporting suicides and mental illnesses. Here, it’s not just the story value that matters but the dignity of the deceased, the privacy of the family and the repercussions of one's reporting.

(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)

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