Can the Media Talk about Mental Illness with Dignity?

Mind It
6 min read
Hindi Female

(TW: This piece talks about suicide. (If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)

Writing about loss seems to be something reporters – especially health reporters have had to come to terms with this past year.

Suicide especially is a thorny, uncomfortable subject but in a country that accounts for almost 18 percent of all suicides in the world – do we talk about it enough?

It’s been one year since Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide.

And one year since the frenzied media coverage, trial and arrest of actor Rhea Chakrabarty and the mockery made of people with bipolar disorder, depression and mental health conditions in general.

As health reporters primarily covering all things COVID-19, we had to shift gears and dive headfirst into the whole debacle.

The question then became not if we talk about suicide enough (we did) but if we spoke about it well.

How To: Mental Health Reporting

We, as the media, had to introspect. And we had a lot to re-learn.

The World Health Organization has outlined the vital role the media plays in preventing suicide and suicide myths.

So we focussed on how to report and aimed to better our language – we made changes within our organization to ensure the word ‘committed’ was outlawed.

For health reporters, reporting on mental health and suicide meant centring the person, focussing on their life, reiterating the idea that suicide is preventable and linking to accessible helplines.

The phrase ‘died by suicide’ seemed clunky at first, but as I write this article, it’s instinctive.

Language is elastic and as journalists, we must be open to adapting it to be more inclusive and mindful.


When I covered the SSR death case, I saw first-hand the power of the media.

I remember reporting about a young boy of about 10 who died by suicide in an eerily similar way to Singh Rajput.

Reporting on copycat suicides that increased immediately post sensationalist coverage shifted something within me and it became imperative to call out organizations that were still using stigmatizing language. For me, the line between journalist and mental health advocate blurred as it became impossible to be an impartial bystander.

Big wins came when large media organizations like Times of India changed their headlines to ‘died by suicide.’

While graphic language and details of the act are still included, this is a step in the right direction and the result of efforts from activists and advocates in India’s mental health space.

A year on, many more news sites say die by or from suicide. Just a quick Google search shows the increased usage and normalizing of the phrase, removing the criminality from the act.

But is this enough? Rashi, director of The Alternative Story, an organisation providing affordable mental healthcare, asks “Are we training journalists in schools on how to report on suicide?”

“While reporting on mental health, if someone died of mental health issues or suicide are we asking ‘Why is this news?’ or rather ‘What is the story there?’ If your only angle is suicide, why is that the angle? If your angle is mental healthcare or systemic issues or countering myths, that makes sense. Having a mental health issue in itself is not an angle. The news should have been ‘Sushant Singh Rajput dies of suicide, how did we miss the signs.”
Rashi, Director, The Alternative Story

Her advice is to look at it as we look at physical health: would we cover a death by heart attack in the same breathless way? Would we give explicit, intimate details?

Probably not. “Suicide is still a sensational topic, and we need to question why.”

So beyond language, what kind of reporting we do matters.

“How do we report mental health stigma and crises? What is the crux of the news? Here is where ethics come in. I think the problem with mental healthcare reporting is a lack of thought behind it.”

Looking Beyond The Act

Rashi discusses how suicide reportage needs to consider the factors that surround suicide – “mental health and mental health issues don’t exist in a vacuum,” but are intertwined with socio-economic realities.

So to report on mental health meant countering myths with factual data, and one of the stickiest myths we tackled was: suicide cannot be prevented. We tried to counter that by centering the voices of survivors who spoke about what helped them in the moments they needed it most.

People who battle suicidal thoughts, researchers and experts have repeatedly told us: Suicide is not someone choosing death, but someone avoiding life as it is too painful.

“Suicide is a desperate cry for help,” adds psychiatrist Dr Soumitra Pathare in a previous FIT article.

“It is an emotional decision, and almost half of the suicides in India tend to be impulsive. Research showed that most suicide attempts are without the intent of killing themselves, but because they are distressed.”
Dr Soumitra Pathare, Psychiatrist

The mainstream media’s coverage was brutal and relentless, and to counter that, we focussed on how to spot the signs of distress and how to help.

Listen and talk to experts was one of the solutions.


Suicides and mental health issues have unfortunately occurred and been reported on before Sushant Singh Rajput.

So while tangible changes in our mental health landscape may take time, hopefully, the media is learning day by day to treat stories about mental health normally – and report them with accuracy and care.

Mental Healthcare for Reporters

Covering mental health problems and especially difficult subjects like suicide can take a toll on the reporter’s own mental health.

Megha Kaveri, a freelance journalist with a mental illness told me that the myths around depression during the SSR 'media trial’ made it “very difficult for me as I was trying to make it as a professional journalist with a mental illness.”

“I was ridiculously angry as I felt prime-time journalists were making a caricature out of mental illness and people with mental illnesses. There was no dignity, we did not need to see those graphic images. We needed responsible journalism, not more inaccuracies spread about depression and bipolar disorder which are both complex and highly individual mental health conditions.”
Megha Kaveri, a freelance journalist with a mental illness

As I followed the case unfurl over several months, I remember feeling jaded as our national mental health discourse was pushed backwards.

Researching and writing on mental healthcare involve speaking to experts, including those with lived experience. This can be triggering, and it’s often hard to acknowledge feelings of ‘borrowed’ trauma.


Kaveri says that writing about “despair and loss all around took a toll on me, but I had to compartmentalize at work since the work did not stop in a newsroom.” But even second-hand grief needs an outlet, and she says she “had to offload somewhere and increased therapy sessions.”

As someone working in India’s mental health space, Rashi deals with more than her fair share of hopelessness and grief.

“There’s a lot of misinformation you see daily, it is very taxing but also I try to look at it two-fold: there’s ages of stigma, so any intervention takes at least just as long and two, I want to act from a place of compassion since many times people are not actively trying to harm, it comes from a space of ignorance.”
Megha Kaveri, a freelance journalist with a mental illness

A sense of humour and compassion towards others and yourself are extremely important to build resilience she adds. “And finding your tribe, your supportive community can help too.”

Journalism has immense power, and recognizing that can help guide the kind of work we do.

So as reporters we trudge on, hopefully sharpening our skills and delving into the heart of a story to make a difference – and not just for the clickbait.

(Devina Buckshee is a health journalist and incoming MPH candidate at Yale University. She tweets at @DevinaB21.)

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