By Prithvi Iyer and Nethra Palepu
The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has taken the country by storm. Since his demise two months ago, numerous theories regarding its “real” cause have received incessant media coverage, from nepotism in Bollywood to allegations of foul play. It is, of course, plausible that some of these theories might be true. The case is still under investigation and the details are murky—but it is necessary to explore some of the narratives surrounding the actor’s demise that highlight the misinformed and harmful ways in which mental health is viewed in India. This needs to be critically analysed in order to improve our understanding of mental health and suicidality in a way that is mindful, informed and science based. However, in the case of a celebrities’ demise, the ability to express objectivity in our understanding of mental illness and suicidality is greatly compromised.
Celebrity suicides and its psychological impact on the masses
The allure of the celebrity and their larger-than-life public persona makes confronting the reality that a celebrity may take their own life a bitter pill to swallow. The public nature of such realities force us to confront our notions of mental health—specifically the purported relationship between cultural markers of success and mental wellbeing. The idea that success, however one understands it, does not insulate someone from mental distress has been voiced extensively by mental health professionals but the message does not seem to have reached the masses in India. However, it is not accurate to completely blame people for believing this fallacy. Celebrity deaths have often displayed the ability to forge deep existential crises in those who saw their life as ideal, forcing people to contemplate on the fragility of their own existence. This may often lead to a cascading effect of suicides in the aftermath of a celebrity’s demise.
Research has shown that people who felt affected by a celebrity’s suicide were 5.93 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than those who were unaffected. Moreover, people who match the celebrity in factors like age, gender and profession were even more susceptible to suicidal thoughts. In context to the news of Sushant’s demise, reports of several fans taking their own life came to the fore and reiterated the devastating impact such events can have on public consciousness. Considering this, it is extremely important to be mindful about how narratives regarding mental health and suicide are reported in the media and discussed among the general public. In this case, there are several issues with the ways in which the actor’s death was put across—pointing towards how fallacies regarding mental health tend to take precedence over scientifically grounded facts.
Perceptions of mental illness: Fallacies over fact
To begin with, if the actor did take his own life, the attribution of his death to purely external causes, although well-intentioned, implies a dangerous conclusion: that an individual can only be suicidal if there is an aspect of their life that isn’t going well. According to Sushant’s therapist, he had Bipolar Disorder—characterised by manic highs and depressive lows. If this is indeed true, his death cannot be wholly attributed to certain extrinsic factors. Although such factors often exacerbate this disorder, they do not have a causal relationship. Instead, it is a complex process that is shaped by genetics, environment, and certain neurobiological factors.
The depressive phases that someone with bipolar disorder goes through are often characterised by fatigue, a loss of motivation and interest in activities they once enjoyed. In line with this, there have been several reports about how Sushant was ‘drugged’ with antidepressants that allegedly made him sleep all the time and act unlike himself. These claims that he was forcefully drugged may stem from convictions of foul play or a lack of awareness regarding depression and the functions of psychotropic medications. Either way, knowledge about antidepressants and its side effects was sidelined for a more sensational story focusing on foul play, when in fact the latter is still under investigation.
Media reports have also put forward “exclusive videos” that showed the actor relaxing in his house a few months prior to his death. They declared that he looked “happy” in the video and offered it as clinching evidence that he was not fighting depression. Ankita Lokhande, his former girlfriend, also went on to claim that “Sushant was not the kind of guy who will get into depression.” In line with this narrative, it comes as no surprise that most of the Indian public finds it extremely difficult to grapple with the notion that someone who seemingly did everything “right” would take his own life. Such extrapolations are not only incorrect but are extremely dangerous. They may trivialise an individual’s struggle with mental illness, exacerbate their feelings of helplessness and loneliness, and allow warning signs and cries for help to be overlooked. As Dr. Pathare says, “It’s a myth that a depressed person is always sulking”.
Suicide contagion: Media and its disregard for protocol
Seemingly informed by misconceptions about mental health and its implications, the media frenzy surrounding the actor’s death has also played a critical role in sensationalizing the sensitive topic of alleged suicide. More than 50 research studies have arrived at a consensus that news coverage that fails to abide by basic reporting protocols can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable populations. Formally known as suicide contagion, this troubling pattern was also witnessed after famous comedian Robin Williams’ death by suicide, leading to a 32% increase in suicides using the same method. Seeing this play out with Sushant’s death as well indicates the culpability of the media in fueling the already serious suicide epidemic in our country.
According to the WHO and the International Association of Suicide prevention, the media must resist the following: headlines that sensationalize suicide, undue repetition of stories about suicide, and coverage that provides unnecessary details about the scene of suicide and materials used. Unfortunately, in the months following Sushant’s alleged suicide, news channels have flouted all these protocols and more. Needless details like the colour of the cloth around his neck, leaked images of his body, and ludicrous headlines like “Sushant zindagi ki pitch par hit-wicket kaise ho gaye” (how did Sushant get ‘hit-wicket’ on life’s pitch), all indicate how we trivialise mental illness and repurpose another person’s misery for click-bait articles and TRP’s.
Celebrities like Sushant Singh Rajput that hail from a small town and defy all odds to succeed in the unforgiving entertainment business are a symbol of upward social mobility. The underdog story is persuasive and provides people with a means to reinvigorate their own struggles for seeking success in an unfair world. The media, by relegating mental health awareness to the fringe of their reportage and focusing only on foul play, reinstate faulty beliefs that success and depression cannot co-exist. Now is a time to reflect on mental health, by encouraging conversations that de-stigmatize it and inspire help seeking behaviours. Instead, we still seem to be searching for one concrete explanation for Sushant’s demise, unwilling to acknowledge that sometimes, there are no easy and straightforward answers.