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OP-ED: Not the easy way out

  • Published at 08:35 pm June 30th, 2020
mental health
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The coverage of suicide in media must be done responsibly


From the tales of old, where Shamans performed ritualistic purifications to rid people of spirits, to the recent scientific discoveries of almost unbelievable diseases like schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders, no matter how hard we try to deny it, mental health has always been one of the most defining characteristics of the human condition.

You would think that for a species that prides itself in it’s intellect, mental health would be on the forefront of concerns and needs, but that wasn’t always the case.

In the earlier histories of man, mental health was seen as a type of demonic possession/religious castigation, and this view continued until the middle ages. Mentally ill people were treated as outcasts or burdens on their families, and this alongside the earlier stigmas of this phenomenon being the work of the devil or some sort of divine punishment from god made their lives effectively unlivable. They were locked up and chained away in solitary rooms in now-abolished asylums, and instead of being taken care of for their ailments, they were bound, gagged, and tortured.

While this has all changed now and mental illnesses are being discussed seriously all across academia, there is still so much we don’t know that could help with a comprehensive understanding regarding the ailments that affect our most powerful weapon, and since it is still a relatively new discovery, a lot of people regard this development as a sham.

With a closer look, it can be understandable why. Mental health is something that wasn’t present in the cultures we grew up with, and it is a relatively new amendment in many of these cultures and belief systems.

A class perspective

We all grow up with our personal biases and prejudices, and it doesn’t help that most of the people who are raising their voices for this important issue are people of affluent backgrounds with secular mind-sets.

From a class perspective, working class people can barely put food on the table and scrape together money for treatments of basic ailments such as fever. For them, life is reduced to the bare minimum. When one can’t even manage things like rice and eggs, things like not being happy, wanting to die, hysteric behaviour, or being anxious becomes the normative state of affairs.

So, when they think that depression is basically a drama by the rich, one can understand why someone would think this way.

Mental health isn’t even included in basic education, and since a huge portion of the countrymen live in villages, they don’t have access to unlimited internet or something similar that can enlighten them about these matters.

Reductive religious takes

Even worse is the matter of religion. While Abrahamic religions do acknowledge the existence of mental ailments, the only solution they can offer in these matters are prayer.

And while an intelligent reading of these scriptures can reveal that the basic advice from the scripture is to both pray and seek help (something that still isn’t accepted by a certain sect of zealots), most people aren’t interested in doing this due to the tendency of the masses to blindly follow the various religious leaders that can be found throughout the country.

And on the matters of the mind, most of the religious leaders only focus on the ultimate fatal outcomes of some of the more serious mental ailments, and in that sense downplay the matters of mental health into it merely being a choice, thus reducing the serious nature and power of such terrible afflictions.

This reductive take only reinforces the centuries old superstitions of divine punishments and demonic possessions, and when you take into consideration how most of the people of Bangladesh are from working class families, how a huge portion of them live in villages, and how a huge portion of them revere the religious leaders without any kind of critical analysis on their part, it becomes clear why there is still a huge stigma surrounding mental health in our country.

At the end of the day, this is a complex issue where multiple unrelated fields such as biochemistry and sociology intersect, so writing about these phenomena in an all-encompassing way would require a length that is generally not permitted by most newspapers. And the problems I have already touched upon are things that are being discussed and analyzed as well.

Mental illness in media

Instead, what I would be taking a look at today is something that is being committed by the educated, learned people of this country. It might seem small or inconsequential, but in the grand scheme of things, this mistake is contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness in a pretty major way.

The news of suicide is something that is becoming commonplace in our country, and since the guidelines to cover this phenomenon is new even in the international arena, it is understandable why the proper guidelines for covering this has not become commonplace in the country.

Properly covering them also makes for not so eye-catching headlines, and while that definitely is a problem and plays a role in why suicide is covered the way it is covered, it is unrelated to today’s topic and, frankly, a different beast altogether.

A look at the coverage of suicide appearing in the leading national newspapers will make it clear what I am talking about. “Student commits suicide after failing in SSC,” “Teenager commits suicide after parents refused to buy her a phone,” “Girl commits suicide after her nudes are leaked.”

Even a cursory glance at the headlines reveals why this is problematic. Not only does it reduce suicide to a base, idiotic response to a singular incident (most of which are thought to be the fault of the victim in our current societal climate), they also make it out like that suicide is a pre-mediated crime, which by extension makes the whole affair the fault of the victim and decreases the gravity of mental illnesses as a whole.

Why the misleading coverage?

But before going into their negative effect as a whole and the WHO’s ruling on this issue, let’s dismantle the supposed “facts” these news articles try to represent.

According to the scientific American, suicide is a multicausal act ie something that has more than one cause. The internal cognitive states that contribute to this action might not even be apparent for the person experiencing them, and the reasons for suicide can be as diverse as one’s genetic structure, complex social environments one lives in and childhood, and the fatal blow of depression.

But then why do we attribute simplistic causes like quarrels and results to these things? Well, it’s simply because behaviours like this are apparent to the outside observer, and since most people aren’t trained to discern the real cause of suicide, and since normal people have no idea how someone who suffers from mental illness might feel, they simply use their prejudiced way of thinking and leave it at that.

Truth is, while the incidents are one of the causes of suicides, they aren’t the sole reason for someone’s life being lost. In psychology, the events mentioned as the cause of one’s suicide are called stressful events, and if a vulnerable person suffers from these stressful events, it can eventually become too much for them and cause them to take their life.

Think of it this way, someone who is used to failing in exams and hasn’t been abused because of it would be pretty fine with; but someone who has abusive parents, someone who has been suffering from debilitating anxieties which makes them fearful of their own shadow, someone who has not been able catch a break for years on end, and someone for whom the very act of getting out of bed every day is a challenge; that one failure might be the breaking point, and it might be the final push that sends them off the cliff.

And while this is a very simplistic example that fails to capture the actual experience of someone going through that hell, it can serve as a starting point for someone who wants to learn about this.

That brings us two the second point. Is suicide a pre-mediated crime, and by extension, is it a choice in the same class as theft and murder?

I mean, is the decision to end one’s life as simple as waking up one day, failing, and pulling the trigger? While this is a much-discussed topic among psychiatrists, behavioural neuroscientists, and such, there is a growing consensus that suicide is generally not a choice and basically the fatal outcome of a complex neuro-bio-social situation.

Take this excerpt from NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness) for example, “Typically, people do not die by suicide because they do not want to live -- people die by suicide because they want to end their suffering.

These individuals are suffering so deeply that they feel helpless and hopeless. Individuals who experience suicidal ideations do not do so by choice. They are not simply, ‘thinking of themselves,’ but rather they are going through a very serious mental health symptom due to either mental illness or a difficult life situation.”

People who do die by suicide often feel like it’s their only way out, as living another second is the same as dying to them. Pain is subjective and not comprehensible from an outside perspective, so people think people are only “acting out on emotions” in this case.

But a lot of it stems from the stigma around mental illness as well, and how we think that any kind of thought can be controlled. If cancer kills someone, we accept it as a death due to illness as we have no control over cancer.

While it is hard to admit, when someone suffers from suicidal ideation due to the pain and suffering that come from mental ailments, they can’t control it as well. It is easy to think that these are just thoughts and they can be controlled, but by that logic, the simple act of breathing should be controllable as well. But when someone suffers from ailments affecting the lungs, it becomes impossible for them to control something as simple as breathing as well.

Ailments of the mind work in the same way. People lose control of their minds and their thoughts, and fears consume them, to the point where they are trapped within a dark place and the only thing that can end their suffering (from their perspective) is the thing that will take away their life as well.

The late great writer David Foster Wallace who was also a victim of this terrible illness said it best, “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.

“The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; ie the fear of falling remains a constant.

“The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

“And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!,’ can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

So, since we have established the complex and fatalistic nature of this problem, how does this tie back to the problem of coverage? As discussed, the media portrays suicide in a simple cause and effect chain.

Due to the way the events are presented and how the events themselves are perceived within the context of our society, the media mistakenly contributes to the overall stigma associated with suicide and mental health by extension. It also reinforces the bias that those who die by suicide or have suicidal thoughts are “weak,” “cowardly,” “criminals,” and sinners.

As for how the incident itself is phrased, using “committed suicide” instead of “died by suicide” reinforces the notion that this is a pre-mediated, fully thought out, criminal/blasphemous activity.

Not only does this have an effect on the friends and family the victims of suicide leave behind, it also pushes suicidal people into a corner, further isolating them from society and stopping them for seeking help.

As such, the WHO recommends treating a topic as grave as suicide with the nuance it deserves, and also using phrases such as “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.”

There is a plethora of other information regarding media coverage of suicide in the official WHO outlet regarding this issue. But as these are the issues that are prevalent in our society, they were the ones chosen to be talked about in this article. For more information, both journalists and the masses should read the booklet at the official WHO site so that everyone can be better educated.

The world is a hard place as it is, and for people who are suffering from mental illnesses, it is even harder. Being sensitive and empathetic in our work might cost us our habits, but it might just save someone’s life, and at the end of the day, that’s a fair exchange we should all be okay with. 

Nafis Shahriar is a freelance contributor.