‘Suicide’ web searches surge

Updated on Sep 02, 2020 03:27 AM IST

Young people are at the highest risk. Suicide was the leading cause of death in India in 2016 for those aged 15–39 years; 71·2% of the suicide deaths among women and 57·7% among men were in this age group.

Self-harm is among the top 10 cases of death worldwide, including India.(File photo for representation)
Self-harm is among the top 10 cases of death worldwide, including India.(File photo for representation)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

There has been a surge in the internet search volume for keywords related to suicide and copycat deaths after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s alleged suicide death on June 14, according to a study on the association between online media reports of celebrity suicides and subsequent behaviour in the general population.

There has also been a small but significant increase in the internet search volume for help-seeking keywords, which indicated that responsible news reports can also be used to nudge vulnerable individuals to seek support, according to researchers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, who published the study in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry.

Self-harm is among the top 10 cases of death worldwide, including India. According to an Indian Council of Medical Research study published in The Lancet Public Health journal in 2018, an estimated 230,314 peopledied by suicide in India in 2016. India accounted for 36·6% of the global suicides in 2016 among women, and 24·3% among men, the study found.

Young people are at the highest risk. Suicide was the leading cause of death in India in 2016 for those aged 15–39 years; 71·2% of the suicide deaths among women and 57·7% among men were in this age group.

“Google trend analysis showed a surge in internet search volume for suicide-seeking keywords along with media reports of copycat suicides from across India, which provides evidence of the Werther effect. About 58% articles used sensational language, 59.5% articles mentioned the suicide site, 17% articles suggested possible cause for suicide was not related to mental health,” said study author Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor, department of psychiatry, AIIMS.

The term Werther effect comes from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and is used to describe a spike in copycat suicides after wide media coverage of a suicide.

Rajput’s photograph was used in 47.5% of news media reports and 38% of entertainment media reports though the publication of photographs of a person with mental illness without the consent of the person’s family in cases of suicide violates section 24 (1) of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, the study said.

The peak search volume for suicide and for help-seeking keywords was on the day of the actor’s death. “The biggest worry is people searching for methods of self-harm. There’s a danger of fans identifying with the deceased celebrity and it may lead the vulnerable ones to turn to suicide as an acceptable way out of their problems. Media focus on the method of suicide may also remove ambivalence about which method to choose for suicide in vulnerable individuals, leading to an increase in suicide by the same method,” said Dr Sagar.

“Conversations around mental health and suicide can have both positive and negative impacts. Whether it’s the media, social media or narrative within the community, sensitivity, empathy and responsibility are key to reducing the prevalence of suicide,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

On the upside, the study found that around 81.5% articles did not use the word ‘commit’ or related terms while reporting the death, and 65.5% reports did not mention the suicide method. At least 28.5% of articles addressed the link between suicide and poor mental health, while a few reports included research findings and population-level statistics of suicide and expert opinions from health professionals.

Previous studies of reports of suicide in news media in India found that very few articles mention the link between suicide and psychiatric disorders or substance use disorders, and fewer still educate the public by including opinions from health professionals, research findings or information about suicide prevention programmes.

“It’s an important time for our country to work towards a National Suicide Prevention Policy. Mental health needs to be a priority, from immediate crisis intervention and helplines to focusing on preventive mental health and reducing stigma around help seeking. It’s time we advocate for mental health outcomes, strive for early identification and treatment, and use the digital transformation to provide mental health care to all,” said Dr Parikh.

The study had some limitations ,including the fact that it reviewed only English-language online media reports. “We only assessed print media online and excluded television, radio and social media, which are important areas for future research as international studies have found television coverage and social media to be associated with increased suicide rates,” he said.

(If you need support or know someone who does, please reach out to your nearest mental health specialist.) Helplines: Aasra: 022 2754 6669; Sneha India Foundation: +914424640050 and Sanjivini: 011-24311918

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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