Celebrity Suicides: The BIGGER Picture

As a country, India loves her Bollywood actors, sportsmen and social media influencers.

People of all ages are smitten with one star or the other. They try to imitate their ‘heroes’, mimic situations they have seen their favourite actors play out and use all the fancy, branded merchandize the ‘best’ cricket players endorse. In a world, which is almost never kind, looking up to an idealized version of a human portrayed on the silver screen, gives solace to the common man, which they SO rightly deserve.

And it is all hunky-dory and sunshine and lollipops, till the common people get to realize, that the celebrities whom they put on a pedestal and idolized, are mere mortals like them. Even if their lifestyle, attitude may be quite different from the general population, they are, still, at the end of the day- extremely human. Celebrities like fast food on the streets, comfortable clothes and hanging out with their friends like the rest of us. They also have fights, character flaws and serious mental illnesses.

“Wait, what did you just say? But they always seemed so happy” – Now, this is a sentence that most of us have heard (or even said, sometimes) upon hearing that someone has attempted or died of suicide. Most people often relate suicidal ideation to a very unhappy, loner person with a grim and silent attitude. They do not take into consideration of the fact that human beings are adept at hiding their true feelings, most of them have been taught to do so since a very young age. For example – “‘Smiling depression’ is a term for someone living with depression on the inside while appearing perfectly happy or content on the outside. Their public life is usually one that’s “put together,” maybe even what some would call normal or perfect. Smiling depression isn’t recognized as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but would likely be diagnosed as major depressive disorder with atypical features.” [Jamie Elmer, 2018; medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg] Often, the importance and seriousness of triggers and their devastating effects are forgotten. A little, isolated incident to you might amount to the tipping point in someone else’s life.

According to Natalie Staats Reiss and Mark Dombeck, “The most frequent stressful event leading up to suicide (what is often called a precipitating event) today is mental illness. It is estimated to account for about 90 percent of all suicides. A newly diagnosed and/or poorly treated mental illness can trigger a suicide in some cases.” Depression is one of the major mental illnesses that result in mental health related suicides. Unfortunately, it is not limited to that. Bipolar Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, etc. also cause suicidal ideations and death by suicide. It can be one of the most shocking things to a suicide survivor when one of their near and dear ones die, but, it becomes devastating on a larger scale when it is a celebrity, whose life has mostly been an open book (although not a very honest book), dies because of suicide.

There have been plenty of celebrity suicides in Indian history, amongst which most high profile deaths have a very controversial, conspiracy-laden air about them and fans debating whether they are actually suicides or murders. But these discussions do not prevent the effect it has on the people. I, personally, had to hear about the passing away of a thirteen-year old girl, due to suicide, precipitated by a familial argument. This occurred a mere week after one of the most high-profile celebrity deaths happening in India in the month of June (which still has major news organizations distracted from all the other disastrous things going on in the country). This brings us to the discussion of the effect of media surrounding this topic.

According to Halgin and Whitbourne, “The publicized suicide serves as a trigger, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide by a susceptible or suggestible person. This is referred to as suicide contagion. They occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster.

Suicide clusters are caused by the social learning of suicide-related behaviours, or “copycat suicides”.” This basically says that when a vulnerable individual or group experiences the demise of their idol by a method that is quite accessible (suicide, in this case), they are driven to commit the same.

“The suicides are sadly not surprising”, says Professor Paul Yip, director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, when asked about the copycat suicides that took place after the recent celebrity suicide. “In India… Someone popular, well-liked by the people, can have fans who not only try to emulate their hairstyles or fashion, but their lifestyle. So when an actor dies, because fans are so tethered to their favourite star, the unstable then follow suit.”

Copycat suicide is mostly blamed on the media. “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it,” Phillips said. He cited studies that showed that people were more likely to engage in dangerous deviant behaviour, such as drug taking, if someone else had set the example first. It will be absolutely fair to say that the media sensationalizes such celebrity suicides and peddles their death for TRP. Media houses have realized the attractiveness of the drama and conspiracy theories surrounding such deaths and the fact that they will be consumed on a large scale. And this has somewhat blinded them to the effect that it has on the at-risk population who might view it and emulate it as a means of end – “if their hero/heroine couldn’t make it, what chances do they have? Isn’t it better then to just end life?” As dark as this sounds, according to many researches this is the thought process of the youth. [Mulvihill, G (2010). “Experts Fear Copycat Suicides After Bullying Cases. Experts fear a spate of copycat suicides after bullying cases grab national headlines”. ABC News. Retrieved April 21, 2011.]

However, the biggest concern of 2020 surrounding celebrity suicides is the belittling of mental illnesses and suicidal ideation. Due to the recent case, where it is still being debated as to whether it is actually a suicide or not, many people, ranging from news anchors, actors to the common population on social media have dismissed the importance of mental illnesses and how it may lead to suicide. This is extremely harmful because our country is still not as aware about mental health and problems related to it as other countries. Uninformed people may ignore the dangers of it because of the type of things being said on media today. The importance of mental health awareness has never been so high before. If people are not taught, informed or made aware in the correct manner now, suicides might become an epidemic in India, even while people fail to grasp its severity.

Written by Rima Chowdhury

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