What to Do If News Surrounding Suicide Is Triggering for You

FIT speaks to psychologists to understand how individuals can cope with content that they may find triggering.

Updated06 Aug 2020, 01:45 PM IST
Mind It
7 min read

(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)

On the fateful night of 4 August 1962, legendary actor Marilyn Monroe died by suicide at her house in Los Angeles. Following her death, the rate of suicides increased by almost 12 percent in the United States alone, with over 300 additional deaths being reported the same month.

Celebrity deaths and other highly publicised suicides have been found to have an enduring effect on people who consume news - working as triggers for those who may already be in emotional or physical distress. With the passing of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, media reportage surrounding suicide has come under the lens for being extremely insensitive; especially detrimental to people who are already vulnerable.

FIT speaks to psychologists to understand how people can cope with such pieces of news and information, what makes a particular section more exposed to these tendencies, and how people around them can help.

Media & Suicidal Tendencies

The pattern of highly publicised suicides impacting people who consume the news to this extreme extent has been called ‘The Werther Effect’, named after the principal character in the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Soon after its publication, young men began to mimic Werther by dressing like him and dying from suicide after facing rejection from the women they loved.

A meta-analysis of over 40 studies on suicides found that 1) studies measuring the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a ‘copycat effect’ than studies that did not, and 2) studies based on a real as opposed to a fictional story were 4.03 times more likely to uncover a copycat effect.

Dr Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Head, Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, tells FIT,

“It is very important to ensure that reports about celebrity related deaths by suicide are reported in a very sensitive manner. It is a known fact that these can be big triggers as celebrities are role models and many individuals, particularly the young, look up to them. The meaning and reasoning they may infer from the incident can be triggering, leading to what are known as copycat suicides or Werthers syndrome.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber

There is abundant research into this phenomenon. While the extent is not known, the impact that media representations can have on audiences remains undisputed, which is why reportage about such events needs to be sensitive. According to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on suicide reporting, providing details about the methods used, describing the event minutely, and sensationalising or glorifying (visually or by words) needs to be avoided at all costs.

Part of the WHO Guidelines for Media on Suicide Reporting  
Part of the WHO Guidelines for Media on Suicide Reporting  
(Photo: FIT)

This is exactly why following Rajput’s death, social media was replete with pleas from people across the board to use ‘trigger warnings’ before speaking about or disclosing information about his suicide. A trigger, here, is something which causes instant distress in a vulnerable person, so warning individuals can allow them to choose to not look at content that could be unsettling.

What to Do If News Surrounding Suicide Is Triggering for You

Why Some People Are More Likely to Get Triggered

Speaking to FIT, Havovi Hyderabadwalla, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist and Co-founder of ‘Mind Mandala’, said, “People who are suffering from mental health issues are already emotionally exposed and vulnerable. Some of them may be seeking help, and some others may not.”

“When you tend to be in such a vulnerable place, your level of empathy may be high. You can’t help but feel what the other person must have felt, and this may take you back into your own black spiral. Such an action by someone else validates your feelings and you think, ‘maybe what I was feeling was right all along’. It isn’t necessary that the person who died by suicide felt or did exactly what you have been thinking, but it could lie on the same spectrum, and you may find resonance in the form of a common unfortunate end goal. It could lead you into thinking that suicide could be the answer, when in reality, it never is.”
Havovi Hyderabadwalla

Dr Kamna Chhibber also explained, “For those with preexisting conditions, it can certainly be more of a trigger as they can be reminded of their own emotional states and thoughts which may have been difficult to manage in the past.”

What to Do If News Surrounding Suicide Is Triggering for You
(Photo: FIT)

Importantly, mental health issues are not the only causes of suicide and not all mentally distressed individuals are suicidal. Ritika Aggarwal, Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital tells FIT, “There are many risk factors which can make a person more vulnerable to such thoughts, and consequently, this individual may feel more triggered by such content. Pre-existing mental as well as physical disorders, a prior history of a suicide attempt, exposure to suicidal behavior early in life and social and cultural circumstances, for instance, are some factors that could make someone more prone to get more severely impacted by news about suicide.” Sometimes, there may be no known tangible or apparent reason at all.

“It’s a rather complex phenomenon. In the end, it is about how a person would react if they feel completely lost and helpless. People with these feelings could automatically be more sensitive to such news, which is why even during therapy, suicidal ideation is one of the first questions we address with a client.”
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

Hyderabadwalla explains how exactly celebrity deaths, in particular, can trigger such responses in a set of people. “People look up to celebrities. In fact, in the very first case I treated in my career, the person had sought help because they were jilted by Robin William’s death and didn’t know how to cope. This isn’t an uncommon feeling. You really look up to celebrities and put them on a pedestal. When a certain mentor figure or an idol, who has set life-goals for you and who has a strong impression on you, takes their own life, you can just end up thinking ‘maybe it is not worth it’.”

Moreover, to many vulnerable groups, this may look as a means to get the importance that they feel they do not receive alive. “Because the media sensationalises the news, those who are already struggling could read about it and think, ‘maybe taking my life will make others give me the care and attention that this person is getting post their death’,” Mehta explains.

Listen, Speak and Reach Out: Ways to Cope

What to Do If News Surrounding Suicide Is Triggering for You
(Photo: FIT)

These are difficult times for all of us. With the pandemic and the lockdown, our protective shields are lower, and many of us do not have our usual support systems around to provide some perspective and help. Naturally, for those who were already struggling, the challenge of sustaining through this time has increased manifold.

In the middle of this mental health crisis, exposure to any kind of disturbing news content can be unnerving for some, as explained. To start off, the media’s role in responsibly disseminating information about such an event cannot be stated enough. But moving beyond, what can be done at an individual level to help?

The psychologists we spoke to put forth some important points:

  • If you are feeling triggered, you should ensure you reduce the exposure to information about the incident and proactively tell people around to not have repeated conversations about the topic.
  • Ensure that support systems are activated and you are reaching out to friends or family in case you experience low moods or anxiety. Speak to an expert if required as well, call on helplines.
  • Keep focusing on the things that you can do to keep yourself busy and actively engaged so that you can distract yourself from the difficult thoughts that may emerge.
  • You need to create a mental hygiene for yourself, especially now, with quarantine and isolation. You do not need to read or watch 10 different channels and articles for the same news.
  • If this is a trigger, steer away from information and ensure that you stay connected to your treatment team and accelerate the utilization of skills that have previously helped you cope with difficult situations and experiences
  • Try a digital detox, get off your phone. If you know something is going to upset you, do not engage in it. This is where trigger warnings before any such content are extremely important.

It is also equally crucial for people around to pay attention to signs, to check in on a person who seems to be in distress, and to get them the help they might need. The discourse surrounding suicide needs to shift from an act of cowardice to an actual acknowledgement of what may have led someone to take their life. Therapy needs to be normalised and people need to be more empathetic.

What to Do If News Surrounding Suicide Is Triggering for You
(Photo: FIT)

Mehta explains, “It is important to pay attention to calls for help and to actively be around the person. Take them seriously, listen to them, and tell them they are not alone. Be proactive and keep in touch. Let the person know they are cared for. In the process, remember to not blame yourself either if you feel you haven’t been able to help.”

She adds that even though confidentiality to a friend is important, that shouldn’t prevent a person from connecting an individual in need to a therapist who can help. “Remember and remind that seeking help is an act of strength.”

(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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Published: 15 Jun 2020, 02:34 PM IST
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