December 2020

Celebrity suicides: a pandemic within a pandemic

In 2020, India has lost a string of celebrities to suicide, during the lockdown. The loss of employment and heightened isolation may have exacerbated the underlying mental distress of public figures.

Niharika Dabral | Delhi

One of the most popular stories that dominated our news cycle this year was the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the subsequent witch hunt of his girlfriend Rhea Chakroborty. Not only was it an example of patriarchy and sensationalisation being brazenly displayed but it was identical to what had happened to Rekha thirty years ago.

Rekha was blamed for her husband Mukesh Aggarwal’s death by her in-laws. The family members of Mukesh Aggarwal called her a “dayan” (witch) and even her industry colleagues shunned her. Subhash Ghai called Rekha a “blot” in the film industry and while Anupam Kher rechristened her as a“National Vamp”.

Sooraj Pancholi however, was spared this treatment even as his girlfriend Jiah Khan blamed their failed relationship as a reason for her suicide. In 2018, Pancholi was formally charged with abetting Khan’s suicide, the trail is yet to begin. While no individual should be blamed for someone else’s suicide (unless a detailed investigation proves so), media’s double standards in terms of pinning the blame exclusively on women are apparent.

Suicide can be triggered by several reasons and in a country like India, where every one in seven people suffers from a mental illness, the victim might only have scummed to their long term battle with anxiety or depression.

Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles interviewed several celebrities from across different fields for their research and concluded that “being famous leads to loss of privacy,
sensitization, demanding expectations, the gratification of ego needs, and symbolic
Immortality.” Additionally they noted, “areas of psychological concern for celebrity mental health include character-splitting, mistrust, isolation, and an unwillingness to give up fame.” It has also been found that people (mostly actors) who work in the entertainment industry or always have media glare on them are unable to solidify meaningful relationships.

These findings show how public figures are more susceptible to psychological problems and self-harm. It can be said that Covid-19 imposed lockdown has led to the loss of contracts, isolation, and financial challenges which may have triggered suicidal tendencies amongst the already vulnerable celebrities.

Between May 2020 to December 2020, more than 10 actors in India have committed suicide. Many of these actors have been widely successful. On Thursday police confirmed that Tamil actress V. J. Chitra died by suicide.

The way media has reported on these deaths has only made the situation worse. There is evidence that links sensational suicide reporting about public figures with suicide ideation amongst the general public.

Researchers at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health found that in 2014, the year Robbie Williams died by suicide, 32 per cent of suicide deaths followed the same method that Williams used to die. This phenomenon has been termed “copy-cat” suicides. It is because of this prevalence that the WHO manual on suicide reporting guides media to not give an explicit description of the method used in completing or attempting suicide. The glorification of victims, oversimplifying the reason for suicide or making wild assumptions about the same should be avoided. Responsible reporting can save lives.

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