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No time to sensationalise – How Media Reports Suicide

The journalists reporting on suicide in Pakistan are not really trained to do so. They are learning as they go along by trial and error

No time to sensationalise

Death induced by suicide is a life cut short by self-directed violence. It finds its way in the newspapers and news TV channel segments readily. Often mediapersons reporting it do not know what an important part of the equation they are: With every suicide, there is an unfortunate but important duty laid on the shoulders of the mediaperson working on that news story. Will this opportunity be used to raise awareness, and perhaps help save lives from a similar fate? Or will it be just another sensationalised bit of news?

The choice is ours. We, the journalists, have important work to do in society as relayers of information. This must be done carefully, consciously, and sincerely.

But when it comes to mental health issues, particularly suicide, is it really the fault of the journalist, when he or she has never been trained in the subject?

Journalists have “beats” to report on; health is an important beat — public health, sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health, and other sub-specialties under the health beat.

However, there has been no formal training of Pakistani journalists to date on how to have mental health as a beat, and how to report on it. If a journalist has organically acquired a certain sensitivity to report on delicate issues, then he or she will apply it when reporting on suicide as well. Yet journalists may often get lost in the quagmire of details when reporting on a suicide. Details like the where, when and how. The opportunity of raising awareness on the issue is often lost in such reporting.

This year in June, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide just days apart. There have been relatively well known Pakistanis who died after committing suicide. This has shed media light on the subject. A study on ‘Newspaper Coverage of Suicide‘ done at Sindh University by Mahesar RA states that “One person, after every 16 minutes, dies not merely because of accident or any other disease but intentionally because of suicide [sic]”.

However, the journalists reporting on it in Pakistan are not really trained to do so. They are learning as they go along by trial and error. The subject of “suicide” — and mental health on the macro level — is staring at us in the face as an unavoidable news beat. But the lack of training leaves means we are making mistakes.

Reporting on suicide, and mental health issues, is a huge responsibility, as well as an opportunity to make a difference. These are not stories to be sensationalised. These are not lifestyle or entertainment stories.

One of the most common mistakes is extreme positions taken by the media when reporting on suicide. One extreme is stigmatising and re-stigmatising both the person who committed suicide as well as the family. The sad music while reporting on suicide on tv, the hackneyed jargon, the nuanced but audible judgment in the news report — it all shows a lack of objectivity.

However, the other dangerous extreme is romanticising the act of suicide — of glorifying it, and instead of presenting facts about this act of extreme self-directed violence, perpetuating myths about it and calling it a “choice.” With the suicides of the aforementioned celebrities (Spade and Bourdain) experts began talking about the risk of triggering what is called the “Suicide Contagion.”

Experts of mental health affirm that suicide (of one or multiple well-known people), can lead to an increase in suicidal behaviour among people who are already at a risk of it. Thus, it is important that these news reports do not just mull over details and allude to it as a heroic act, but present the fact, which is that suicide is, in a majority of cases, linked to mental health issues.

Suicide almost always is not something that happens suddenly out of the blue. It has been considered by the person earlier. There may have been warning signs which people close to the person may have missed. An article published by International Journalists Network titled, Guidelines for Reporting about Suicide, aptly suggests to journalists that they must not suggest that a suicide was caused by a single event. “Suicide is complex, and is often the outcome of different causes, including mental illness — whether recognised and treated or not,” says the article.

Giving details of the method employed for the suicide may also contribute to the suicide contagion. Graphic details and photographs are not only disrespectful and insensitive to the deceased and the bereaved family, but also end up giving ideas to those who may be thinking on the same lines.

Care must be exercised even when writing an obituary for the person who left this world — whether as a journalist on a news platform or as a friend or peer on the many social media platforms. Be careful of the language you use. And most importantly, focus objectively on that person’s life instead of the methodology of death.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s then presidential nominee, Arif Alvi, had publicly suggested a readily available 24/7 psychiatric helpline in September 2018. In November 2018, the President, while addressing the 22nd International Psychiatric Conference organised by Pakistan Psychiatric Society (PPS) said that everyone should play his role for establishing a healthier society in the country. The government can and must play its role too in this regard, and the media can play its role by reminding policymakers and those in positions of power to recognise that mental health must be put on the forefront of the list of priorities when it comes to public health.

WHO’s 2014 report, “Preventing suicide: a global imperative” estimates that for every suicide there are at least 10–20 acts of Deliberate Self Harm (DSH). By this estimate, there may be between 130,000 to 270,000 acts of DSH in Pakistan annually. This means that there are signs before the actual act of suicide is completed. Journalists must include then, after consulting a mental health doctor or therapist, some points about how to recognise the signs that a person may be inching towards suicide, and what can be done to help such a person. The reader can also be directed towards Suicide Prevention Helplines.

Reporting on suicide, and mental health issues, is a huge responsibility, as well as an opportunity to make a difference. These are not stories to be sensationalised. These are not lifestyle or entertainment stories. These are stories that come under the beat of “health”. Once journalists recognise this, the reporting will become more responsible. Most importantly, out of these dark and seemingly hopeless news stories, there can emerge a ray of hope — the hope that if reporting is done intelligently and carefully, it may help spread much needed awareness. It may help someone out there. It may help save a life.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/time-sensationalise/#.XDxIJbhS81k

Forsaken?: In Thar, depression claims what drought spares

Published: October 29, 2014

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: “Dhia Bheel was a beautiful young woman but always looked gloomy and frail. She couldn’t put up with hunger and domestic violence. She jumped into a well with her six-month-old child. I’ve witnessed two suicide cases in the last two months in my tiny village,” says Lado Meghwar, resident of village Meghi Jo Tar in Tharparkar.

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. And psychiatrists believe the persisting famine is creating psychological disorders among the Tharis, leading to suicidal tendencies.

In the past 10 months, 40 people have committed suicide in Tharparkar, including two cases of mothers killing themselves along with their children, according to a report prepared by a local NGO, AWARE.

More worrisome are the two cases of minors committing suicide. Thirteen-year-old shepherd Savaee Ghazi Meghwar of Kasbo village, district Nagarparkar, killed himself when his parents did not give him his pocket money.

The second case narrated by Marro Meghwar, a resident of Chapar Din village, is of a boy called Raimal, son of Chaman, aged 12, who threw himself into a well some 20 days back. “The child was mentally challenged. With such poverty how could they have even considered treatment?”

Psychiatrist Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri confirms that suicide cases are on the rise in Tharparkar, and he links it mainly to depression. With the drought in Tharparkar prevailing for a third consecutive year, there is much to be depressed about.

This affects women and children the most, according to Khatri. Seventy-five per cent of patients of mental illnesses here are females, he claims.

“Problems overlap. Abject poverty leads to malnutrition, which affects sanity. Even if I do try to counsel a patient, it’s useless because malnutrition will lead to mental challenges. Such cases are more prone to suicide,” says Khatri. “They laugh when doctors suggest they eat fruits. ‘Our standard diet is dried red chilies with roti’, they say.”

Because of poverty, most depression cases go undiagnosed. “They don’t have money to feed themselves. How can they commute to Umerkot where we hold our free clinics?”

Thari women are malnourished. Their average hemoglobin level is eight to 10, which means they are also anemic. And their problems keep multiplying. More and more Thari men are moving to cities to try and earn a living, leaving their women lonelier and sadder.

Conversion Disorder, a mental illness in which psychological illness starts producing physical symptoms, is also common among Thari women. The realisation of their plight is equally painful. “While this awakening is a good thing, it is also painful, because the Thari people are realising how far behind they are,” says one doctor.

The state, however, is in a state of denial. Dr Lekhraj, who works at the state-run hospital in Chachro, denies any of these deaths were due to suicide. MPA Mahesh Kumar endorses Dr Lekhraj: “Maybe the women slipped and fell” into the wells.

That is because many blame the government for the depressing state of affairs in Tharparkar. Defending his government’s report card, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah this week claimed in a speech in the provincial assembly that his administration has recently arranged wheat worth Rs2 billion for the drought-hit areas of Tharparkar.

Ironically, he denied anyone had died of hunger over the past five years, and also contradicted reports of an unusual increase in child deaths in Tharparkar. Unofficially, more than 100 drought-affected children reportedly died in the region this year – 32 in the month of February alone.

MPA Mahesh Kumar concedes the drought situation this year ‘is worse’ than 2013, but he denies poverty could be blamed for the deaths and depression. “Other reasons like illicit affairs and family feuds can also be a reason,” claims Kumar. “Malnourishment is not just a problem of Tharparkar. It exists in other parts of Sindh and in Balochistan too. But now the media magnifies even the smallest incidences.”

Officials say they are giving 50 kg of wheat, free of cost, to every family. But local NGO’s insist very few families ever received the entire 50kg allotted to them. With the government insisting all problems will be solved with a 50kg bag of flour, the future looks bleak for the people of this neglected part of Pakistan.

Suicide in numbers

• 40 is the number of cases of suicide in Tharparkar district in the first ten months of 2014.

• A tehsil-wise ratio of suicides shows that 42% of the cases were in Mithi, 23% were in Nagarparkar, 20% in Chachro and 12% in Islamkot.

• 50% of the cases were men and 50% were women and children.

(Source: AWARE)

The reasons for suicide in order of most cases to least

• Poverty and unemployment

• Family feuds

• Domestic violence

• Mental disorders

• Mismatched marriages

(Source: AWARE.)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2014.

Robin Williams and the price of genius

Published: August 15, 2014

Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes. We like to believe so. Especially the brainy, creative ones. The thinkers. The idealists. This thought could be translated into political revolutionism or writing or art. The ones who have a lot within themselves cannot contain it. They must share it with the world. Robin Williams was one of these, the extraordinary. He thought. And his thoughts spilled onto the celluloid. He made us laugh for the most part. But those who cared to look beneath the surface cried along with this acting genius. If you looked closely enough, after every joke he cracked in his stand-up performances, he gave a weird smile that reminded one of crying. But in those moments, the camera was mostly focused on the audience in splits.

Robin (and I deliberately choose not to call him Williams here, so that he is not impersonalised) suffered from depression and was identified with bipolar disorder as well as alcohol abuse. With an alcohol hiatus of two decades, his sobriety fell prey to his addictions again.

Robin’s death makes me wonder if ‘thinking’, emoting, feeling and leading life as a more evolved human is worth it. While depression has chemical causes that affect the brain and is genetic a lot of times, there is no denying that certain personality types are more prone to it. It is not necessarily suicidal depression, but one that shows self-destructive tendencies.

Yet, with all the pain they endure they choose to live a difficult existence because one cannot deny one’s calling.

Robin, and all those geniuses who have gone before him, was not so different from us. As his character says to his students in the immortal movie, Dead Poets Society, while talking about boys who attended the same school 60-70 years ago: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – Carpe – hear it? – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2014.

Are parents responsible for their children committing suicide?

By Farahnaz Zahidi
April 3rd, 2014
http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/21749/are-parents-responsible-for-their-children-committing-suicide/

kid
Every year Pakistan has cases where young adults and even children commit suicide due to the pressure of getting good grades and being high-performers.
“Hum maaon ko sub kuch chahiye… sub kuch.”

(We mothers need everything… everything).

That is how disturbing certain advertisements aired on TV today are. They show a cross-section of mothers whose sense of validation and joy is dependent on their children becoming over-achievers.

Most of these advertisements are disguised with a ‘feel good’ message, the underlying message, however, is disturbing and sadly, a reflection of what our society’s parents are unwittingly morphing into – a race of achievement-hungry, hard-task masters who want their children to be their trophy to show off. The models posing as mothers stretch their necks upwards as a mark of pride and arrogance while the pressurised children push themselves harder and harder.

What do we parents actually want at the end of the day? A happy child who enjoys his school and college years, has friends and good social skills, is a responsible citizen, a good human and takes studies seriously?

If only the list would end there. But sadly, it doesn’t.

Children, from the day they are born, are our status symbols. And we tend to be misled into thinking that this is what good parenting is all about. There are certain types of body language parents display when they talk about their children.

Look around you at the times when someone asks another person which school their children go to, what the child’s hobbies are and particularly grades of the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). If your kid got As and A-stars, you make sure to ask other parents what their kid got. But if your kid is a ‘shame to the family’ because he/she got Cs and Ds, you change the topic and adopt an unsaid apologetic stance.

The child is supposed to be super human.

He or she must play soccer, get all As, have friends, be in an elite school, be a member of the drama society, play a musical instrument and of course, his or her ultimate aim in life should be going to Ivy League universities or McGill.

That is why we gave birth to them right? So that they fulfil our unfulfilled dreams.

The pressure on these young people is often underrated but it can have devastating effects. Lowered self-esteem, psychopathic fear of failure and deep-rooted depression are some. It is worse if other siblings are achievers and one child is made to feel less.

Every year Pakistan has cases where young adults and even children commit suicide due to the pressure of getting good grades and being high-performers. Most top-rated institutes have such sad cases in their records.

A heart-wrenching case in point was a news story printed yesterday. A 14-year-old child from Malakand in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) shot himself because he had failed in his exams for the third time. This incidence is surprisingly not from an urban area. I am not implying that the bereaved parents of this boy were necessarily pressurising him. I do not know and it is not my place to comment. But generally, society is pushing children towards this.

Discipline is good and so is ambition. But everything has to have both limits and balance. And striking that balance is the key. Encouraging and even nudging the child towards a better future is good.

But what if your child is one who cannot get very good grades?

What if the child goes against the parents’ plan of ‘all sciences’ and wants to choose a social science majors?

What if your child is not a go-getter?

What if your child is not making you proud in the way you want him or her to?

What’s important is that your child, at any age or stage, is making an effort and is growing into a responsible human being who may tomorrow actually end up doing very well in life, whatever the grades.

But for that, you need to be your child’s rock. Celebrate your child’s achievements and make him see hope even in the face of failure.

They say no one loves you as selflessly as parents do. Today’s over-driven, over-ambitious parents may have to prove that by having realistic expectations and a better value system in which respect is not on the basis of schools and grades.