ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Sensitivity, Not Sensationalism

The media regurgitates learned biases when reporting on people with mental health disorders.

We have had media trials, and now we have media post-mortems. The death of a young Bollywood actor by suicide proved to be an opportunity for media houses driven by television rating point to treat the event like an all-access pass to unearth the actor’s personal life and speculate on his state of mind. The Bollywood fraternity has largely aided this process by fanning the flames of sensationalism. There were platitudes aplenty, with several notable names expressing their shock and sympathy. The responses ranged from ill-informed, tone-deaf statements of condolence, to levelling allegations of “planned murder” abetted by nepotism, to online smear campaigns against the alleged “nepotism brokers.”

These reactions betray our utter lack of awareness when it comes to mental health. We seem to be obsessed with the need to affix blame so we are able to treat suicides as isolated aberrations, and not as a damning symptom of a failed social system. It is in the interest of neo-liberal societies to make mental health a personal issue, because it preserves the status quo. We have been taught to think of mental health disorders as reactions to stimuli—the ups and downs in one’s personal life. When someone dies by suicide, we try to establish a direct causal relationship drawing from their personal life. Nothing exemplifies this more than the patronising statements made about “giving up.” This is a sentiment that is popularly echoed in India, and feeds into the “strong” versus “weak” binary. In this understanding, those who are able to overcome challenging circumstances by enduring immense hardship are “strong.” Those who question the necessity of this hardship, or recognise the futility of fighting against it, are labelled “weak,” because they have “given up.”

But, if anything, this sentiment is an insult to the memory of Rohith Vemula and countless others who have raged against structures of oppression, only to be wilfully ignored. Vemula’s death had held up a mirror and showed us the great personal suffering that systemic discrimination and inequality were causing. We should have been ashamed. Instead, we subjected his family to even more suffering as we questioned his Dalit identity, all in an effort to scale down Vemula’s death to a personal level. That way, we could stuff all the societal ills back into the Pandora’s box that he had opened.

Only in the last few decades have we begun to think about the relationship between mental health and social realities like caste discrimination, gender inequality, and other forms of disprivilege. Identities can often have a direct bearing on mental health, because one’s identity is the vessel in which one inherits privilege or disprivilege. It is, therefore, unsurprising that in recent years, the loudest voices advocating for mental health have come from Dalit, queer, and feminist intersections. These activists have understood that one’s mental health is a direct consequence of being forced to fight against one’s own conditioning, in addition to struggling against various kinds of discrimination that directly affect the quality of one’s life.

However, this understanding has not percolated to the rest of society. A few years ago, newspapers in Kolkata were full of reports about the “house of horrors.” A man had been found living in his house with the corpses of his family members. Rather than treating this issue with sensitivity—and waiting for facts to emerge from a proper investigation—the press went ahead and printed unfounded speculations that fed into an almost romanticised fascination with derangement, and with all things macabre. This case shows that if one is suspected of suffering from a mental health disorder, they are likely to be divested of their humanity. And, once shorn of humanity, the internal life of the individual is appropriated into an object of public scrutiny. Here, we must turn to the media.

The media regurgitates learned biases when reporting on people with mental health disorders. Both in terms of images and language, stigma and prejudice are passed on to their readership. The use of the word “committed” for suicide was naturalised because it was seen as a criminal offence, and thereby, it has an association with “committing a crime.” In terms of content, repeating tired platitudes and false binaries, often without clarification, is allowing prejudice more room to grow. The media has a responsibility to unlearn, relearn, and disseminate. Journalists, reporters, and editors, must all go out of their way to correct their biases, because they have a responsibility to the individual, as well as to society. Especially in a country like India, where stigma and silence still hang heavy, the media has to step up with cases that require empathy. They have to understand that when it comes to social issues, they are not simply reporting the news, but are also educating the masses and shaping perceptions. And, too often in the past decade, the media has forgotten its responsibility.


Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020


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