LonePack Conversations- The Role of the Media in Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention ft. Tanmoy Goswami

During the lockdown, we’re all confined to our homes, with the news and media being the only thing that keeps us company. However, recent developments have highlighted the responsibility that rests on our media when it comes to covering sensitive or taboo topics, such as mental health.

 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Tanmoy Goswami. He works at ‘The Correspondent’ as a Sanity Correspondent. He worked in business journalism across India before pivoting to writing about the global mental-health movement. He regularly speaks on the media’s role in suicide prevention and aims to help shape a world where talking about mental illness is no longer taboo, but is recognized as a human condition that connects us all.  

Welcome, Tanmoy.

Tanmoy- Hi, Valerie. Thank you, thank you for inviting me.

Valerie- Thank you for being here with us today to talk about something very important. 

Tanmoy- Yeah, I look forward to the conversation.

Valerie- So, your journey advocating for and writing about mental health stems from your own personal experience battling depression and anxiety disorders. You’ve also written about your experience with suicidal thoughts. Could you tell us a little bit more about your personal journey with mental health issues?

Tanmoy- Sure, sure. Thank you for asking me that question.

Before I launch into my story, I think it’s always useful to issue a trigger warning. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to switch off, and do seek professional help in case you are struggling with mental health problems. There are online resources available. If you reach out to me on Twitter, I can also help you find them. 

Right, yes. Like Valerie said, my journey into mental health journalism is very much a result of my personal experiences with depression and anxiety and self-harm for almost my entire adult life. I think my first diagnosis was when I was in college, I think my first or second year of college, when somebody dragged me to the college therapist. Back then, we had this system in Delhi University, I think all colleges were required to host a therapist on campus. I was very very fortunate that we had an excellent therapist in college and I was becoming increasingly dysfunctional, I think. 

Dysfunctional not in the sense of lagging behind in studies or anything like that. I was a very good student, I was very active in college clubs and societies, and I was in the company of some really really smart, intelligent and wonderful people. But I was becoming dysfunctional in my personal life. I was becoming extremely unmindful, inattentive, accident-prone and of course, I was hurting myself regularly. A friend of mine noticed this. There was a distinct change in my physical appearance and I was all over the place. I know that these are all very very common stereotypes that are associated with mental illness, so it’s not my intention to perpetuate those stereotypes, I’m just communicating what my inner experience was back then. So, I went and saw this therapist and I really used to enjoy talking to him because we mostly used to discuss literature and art and movies, and it didn’t really feel like somebody was trying to analyse me and you know, find out whether I have a mental illness. 

But after about five or six sessions, I was told that I am depressed. I have depression. And this came as a very big jolt because I’m talking about twenty years ago, when these conversations were not only uncommon but there was a humongous stigma attached to it. So, I think when he said that I have depression, I was quite dumb-founded because for me, I didn’t even know what to make of the word ‘depression’. I remember thinking that depression is a weather condition. And although I sort of vaguely knew that there is an illness called depression, you always tend to think that things like this happen to other people, they can never happen to you. And so although the signs were always there and my mother was a nurse- I grew up in a medically literate environment and I still couldn’t digest the fact that at nineteen or eighteen, somebody was telling me that I have depression. 

He told me that I might have to start medicating myself and at that point, I just stopped going to him because I got really frightened. I just didn’t want to take medication. I thought if my parents got to know, they would think that their son is going mad, and they might take me out of college because my parents live in a small town in Bengal. So, that’s when I aborted therapy. After that, my condition, I think, worsened. I was really really struggling. But it was difficult for other people, even my family members or my close friends to really get a sense that things were getting worse because I was fairly high functioning even back then. My grades were very good and I was active.

And so, I think the next many many years of my life, I started working, I’ve lived in every major Indian city, and I think for many many years, I just did not pay attention to this although my problems were always there. I would always be very prone to frequent crying bouts and a lot of physical manifestations- random palpitations and panic attacks. These things, now in hindsight, I know were all symptoms and then you know, I got married and I had a child. And just as we were expecting our child about three and a half years ago, my symptoms turned really bad. 

At that time I was a very senior editor in the Indian diction of one of the World’s most respected magazines, and I quit my job. I quit my job because I was unable to perform even the simplest of day to day activities. I had a virtual breakdown, I was mostly confined to my room, crying, and just did not have the energy to get out of bed to even brush my teeth. I think it was a particularly difficult time because we were expecting a child and it’s the last thing you want to experience when you are anticipating fatherhood. 

So yeah, but thankfully I managed to go see a doctor, one of the best psychiatrists in the country, Dr. Alok Sarin, and I was under his care for a long time. With his help and I went back to therapy, I’m still under therapy. I attend therapy twice a week and take medication everyday, and so my symptoms are well under control. Then last year, this wonderful chapter in my life began when I ended my long stick with business journalism and I became the World’s first Sanity Correspondent, writing about mental health for ‘The Correspondent’, which is headquartered in Amsterdam.

So, yeah. My life has completely revolved around these conditions and they have been shaped by these conditions and I think I’m enormously privileged that the net impact of these experiences in my life has been positive. I’m here, I’m talking to you. So, yeah.

Valerie- I think it’s really wonderful, you know, that you’ve been through so much and you’ve taken that and you’ve turned it into something so positive. You’ve started writing about mental health and you’ve started writing about mental issues, and you put up tweets about your own experiences so that people going through that can connect to it and can possibly get the help that they need. I think that’s wonderful.

Tanmoy- Yeah, I started a thread on Twitter in 2017 and I thought maybe I’d just do this for a few months but I did not have intentions of doing it for three years. To be honest, it’s not like I did this to help other people. I did that to primarily help myself because for me, writing was very very therapeutic. And the thing about depression is that it really messes with your memory. Among many other things that it does, it can also mess with the processing of day to day things that happen in your life. And I realized that one of the ways in which I can really counter-attack, if I may use that word, is by refusing to forget.

I want to remember who I was before this happened to me. I want to remember what this illness made me into and I want to document all of this. I don’t want to live in a state where five years later, I’m left wondering “Hey, what happened to me during that period? I don’t remember”. So, I started it as a very selfish process of documenting and remembering and then along the way, of course, back then or even now, it’s not like I have millions of followers on Twitter, no. I have a small little Twitter family but over the years I was amazed by the feedback that I got. 

Even before Twitter, I had written two or three posts on LinkedIn, which is the last place that you would expect somebody to write about their depression and suicidal thoughts or whatever but those posts were published on the India homepage and they went viral, and I started getting messages from people in the US, Australia, from all over India and it hit me that even in 2017-18, there’s just so much loneliness and so much desperation in people to somehow communicate and to somehow be understood. And I think when somebody else confides their worst secrets in you, you feel emboldened to also trust them with your secrets. 

So, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t do it for any sort of altruistic motivation back then. Of course, now I see communicating as a responsibility because I’m also professionally writing about it. All the mentors or allies or kindred spirits that I have met in the mental health ecosystem, have all been mostly because of Twitter. Eighty percent of those people are people I’ve never met in my real life. I mean it’s not as though Twitter isn’t a part of my real life but it’s as a matter of speaking. So, yeah. It’s really been something. 

Valerie- Yeah.

So, you’ve worked in the field of journalism and you’ve talked extensively about the role media plays when it comes to suicide prevention. From what I see, although things may have become a little bit better in the recent past, there’s still a lot of stigma that surrounds suicide. A lot of cases are not talked about or reported, and cases in which they are reported, you can see a major lack of sensitivity when people are talking about it. It’s often described as a crime that has been committed and it’s termed “disgraceful”. It’s called a matter of shame. Even the family and friends, they’re not given their own space to grieve but you can just see them being ambushed and harassed. So, what do you have to say about this?

Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely. I wish I could paint a rosy picture of things and you’re right, things have improved. I’ve also recently written about exactly how things have improved, primarily because now a lot of people who have no affiliation with the mental health space or with suicide prevention, even they have become very aware of these sensitivities and they’re calling out the media whenever they see a bad report on TV or in digital. They’re calling out these platforms and demanding better standards. 

But that said, I agree with you that by and large, I think the treatment of suicide in the media continues to be very disgraceful. I think the first thing that we need to remember is that there is this myth that all suicides are mental illness related, which is not true. In India, in about fifty percent of suicides, there’s a history of mental illness. The other fifty percent are caused by something else altogether. These could be stressors in your personal life. In the case of farmers, it could be debt. In the case of students, it could be exam results. 

And so, this mischaracterization of all suicides as the outcome of mental illness, that is the worst or the most damaging fallouts of the way the media handles suicide because there is always this insinuation that if somebody dies by suicide, that they were depressed. And what that does is that it basically tells people that if you are depressed then suicide is a legitimate means to get out of that sandwich. So it legitimizes suicide. It legitimizes self harm, which is dangerous. It can trigger a lot of vulnerable people.

The second thing, as you mentioned, is association of suicide with crime. This is an old shameful legacy because suicide was indeed a crime according to the penal code and it continues to be a crime in many countries. In India, it has been recently decriminalized. As a direct consequence of that history, you see the phrasing “committing suicide” being used all the time because you commit crimes and so you’ve committed suicide. There are still a lot of people, although a few of us are constantly trying to educate people on social media through training workshops. I am now part of this regular workshop that we conduct for journalists. We’ve already done two, we’re going to do the third very shortly. 

We still see that among editors and reporters of a certain vintage, there is a lot of resistance. They don’t understand why it is a problem. They feel like this is some sort of censorship, that over enthusiastic activists are trying to muzzle their freedom of speech. We keep telling them that that is not true of all. There is a tonne of evidence and scientific research that proves how media reports on suicide have a very significant impact on suicidal behavior. Especially celebrity suicides. 

So, when Marilyn Monroe died by suicide in the ‘60s, in the following month, there was a massive spike in suicides in the US. When Robin Williams died, the same thing happened again. So, time and again it has been proven that media reporting on celebrity suicide has a very big impact on what is called “imitative suicides” or “copycat suicides”. There’s a very famous case study from Vienna- there was a string of suicides in the subway system of Vienna and when the newspaper editor sat down with the subway company and decided that they would no longer report on suicides, there was almost a magical decrease in the instances of suicides since. So, there is so much evidence that the way media reports suicide has a direct bearing on suicides. According to some researchers, there could be a variation of as much as one to two percent, which is you know, tens of thousands of lives that we’re perpetually talking about. 

So, these are the facts and figures with which we’ve been trying to appeal to media journalists through workshops, in which I am also a part- that this is not a crime. This is a public health issue. As far as the privacy and dignity of the family and the bereaved, I think it should just be common sense. We don’t really have to throw a rule book at people to make them respect those boundaries, right? But unfortunately because we are in an age where traffic and clicks and TRP are supreme, every incremental little development- what color clothing the person was wearing before they died, what did they browse before they died, etc. All these things and constantly heckling family members. We don’t really stop and ask ourselves “What public interest are we really serving?” by disclosing so many details, so much information that serves no other purpose than to just speculate.

Having said that, I would like to end this answer on a positive note by saying that I see a lot of new things to be optimistic. In the general public, there is a much much greater entry now that has been paved towards these issues. More vigilance always results in greater accountability. We have seen many major newspapers and TV channels coming on Twitter and apologizing and saying that they understand that this is a problem and that they will do better, which is unprecedented. I think we are making small improvements but there’s still a long way to go.

Valerie- Yeah. So, following up on what you just said, recently, what we’ve seen is that when it comes to reporting such news, there are a lot of disturbing images and videos that have been widely circulated on social media and they’re even splashed on the national news. So, what kind of guidelines and ethics should media houses and public figures keep in mind while reporting/discussing suicide? 

Tanmoy- You know, it’s actually very simple. The World Health Organization has published very detailed guidelines on suicide reporting in India. It essentially boils down to just a few things- don’t disclose the method of suicide in the headline or in the story, don’t detail the method. Don’t present suicide as a legitimate means to escape from a difficult life situation. Don’t speculate too many personal details. Don’t disclose where the person lived and what they did. Sometimes you see that the person is not named but every other  detail about their life is disclosed and so it’s very easy for people to just join the dots and know whom you’re talking about. 

This point about not speculating about mental illness, that is hugely important because like I said, if the media keep attributing all suicides to mental illness, what essentially happens apart from passing on a very distorted image of mental illnesses per say because it’s not like every person with a mental illness dies by suicide, but apart from that, there is a deleterious impact that is had which is that it completely takes away accountability from society, from the government, from administrations because a lot of psycho-social problems are a direct result of failing socio-economic support systems. For instance, farmer distress. Many of these suicides are the result of debt, the result of some system failing the farmers somewhere and we say that “Oh, this is just the result of psychological distress”, it’s an oversimplification and it allows those who are responsible to make these systems work, escape responsibility and accountability. 

So I think these are some very very simple guidelines. You don’t have to go into excruciating detail of what happened before and what happened after. I mean this whole culture of creating a story out of suicides and presenting it like a very sensational.. And another thing that they say is a good practice, is to talk about, if you’re talking about a celebrity suicide, talk about the impact that that person had through his work. Talk about the positive legacy that the person has lived with. Celebrate that person’s life. Don’t sensationalise their death, you know? So, these are some of the standard guidelines. I can share the WHO guidelines with anybody who pings w=me on Twitter.

Valerie- Alright, thank you for elaborating on this for us. So, we’ve seen that the pandemic that we’re in currently and other recent events,  they’ve seen an increased rate in the number of suicides, and also the rate at which people are showing symptoms of depression has almost doubled. What are your thoughts on this?

Tanmoy- Yes, of course psychological distress is on the rise, which is commonsensical, right? We’re living through an extremely stressful period and like I keep telling my mother, it would be surprising if you did not feel some amount of distress. So, I think it’s very important to normalize that feeling of distress. Every feeling of distress is not necessarily depression. Depression, as it is understood clinically, is an accumulation of a certain set of symptoms over a certain period of time. Something like a global pandemic is of course going to make all of us feel a little bit on edge. And so I think we need to nuance this conversation by making that point upfront. 

After that, what I have to say is that mental health is such an intersectional issue. Everything about your life has a bearing on your mental health. Your case identity, your gender identity, your employment, your sexuality, how society treats you as a person. All of that has a bearing. What we’re seeing during the pandemic also, if you look at which communities are struggling with a disproportionate burden of psychological distress, these are your traditionally disenfranchised, marginalized communities. So, these are the Blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities in Britain, African-Americans in the US, in India the poorest of the poor. We’ve all seen the shocking scenes involving our workers in our states. So, the most gut wrenching toll of the pandemic has really been on those communities that are anyway vulnerable, and the pandemic has once again exposed these deep social inequalities.

 It should come as no surprise to anybody that at a time where the global economy is on its knees and jobs are being shed at a frightening rate, that these are the communities that are bearing the worst brunt of the pandemic. Whether it is in terms of mortality, once again, minorities in the US and UK are at a heightened risk of dying from COVID-19, naturally there is greater anxiety in those communities and because mental illnesses often have comorbidities with other problems like diabetes, etc. That also makes people very vulnerable, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored or neglected by healthcare systems, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored by formal employment, which are the communities that are generally left to their own means? These are the communities and so it’s no surprise that they are suffering the most, even during the pandemic.

Valerie- Yeah. I liked what you said because we are in unprecedented times, so normalizing the feeling of distress is something that can help us get through this time. I mean, when you talk about adjusting to the normal, I guess this is also something that comes under those things.

Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely! I mean, I think it’s important for all of us to take a step back and pat ourselves on the back because it’s really a miracle that we’re all still functioning. I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the fact that we’re still talking, we still have podcasts and webinars and we’re still being productive. Of course, there’s that race for productivity and picking up new skills and new hobbies, as if this lockdown is some kind of an extended vacation, which it isn’t. 

I don’t want to glorify the whole work from home situation because for so many people, being at home is not at all a safe experience because there is so much domestic violence and many other stressors. I think given all of that, I think humanity has tried its best to hold it all together during this period and I think we really need to commend ourselves for that. And it’s completely alright. Like I said, it would be shocking if we didn’t all feel a bit off-kilter from time to time. So, yeah.

Valerie- So finally, I would like to ask you- what can we, as individuals, do to help during this situation of uncertainty because it’s definitely a time which has proven to take an amplified toll on our mental health. So, what can we do to help?

Tanmoy- I’d say first, we need to help ourselves to begin with. To allow ourselves to feel raw and vulnerable from time to time, articulated with people that you trust. Talk to people that you trust. When it comes to other people and how we can help other people, that’s a very complicated question because right now, because of physical distancing, etc., we are not really able to sort of physically be there with a lot of people. But simple things, I think, really validating other people’s experiences. Not questioning what anybody is going through or not spreading what is called ‘positive toxicity’, which is this posturing that everything is going to be alright and that everything is going to be fine. 

Yes, in all likelihood we look at this a year later and maybe laugh, if we are privileged enough. But for the time being, it’s important to not make people feel like they’re making a big deal out of nothing by saying things like “Look, there is so much misery in the World, what do you have to complain about? Cheer up, snap out of it, be happy”. I think we should banish this kind of language from our vocabulary. That would be a real favour we’d be doing to our family and friends. I think anybody who is feeling distressed, mirror their distress, validate it and say it’s alright to feel distressed. Ask them what you can to help. Don’t assume that they need your help, don’t lecture them on how they should live their lives, don’t make it about yourselves, when somebody comes to you asking for help.

Just validate, legitimize the feeling that we’re all feeling and generally just be compassionate and be there. Emotionally make yourself available as much as you can, without completely burning yourself out. Because this is a marathon, we’re in for a long grind, this is not a hundred meter race. So I think all of us just need to conserve our energies, prioritize, focus on the right things and just be compassionate.

Valerie- I think that was very wonderfully put. To help ourselves first and think about our needs, and when it comes to other people, to validate experiences. Not to assume but to just be there for other people, and understand and at least tell them that what we’re going through is okay as opposed to what you called positive toxicity. I thought that was wonderful. Yeah, so thank you so much for having this conversation with us today because it’s truly been an eye opener on a lot of fronts for me and I’m sure it will be for our listeners as well. There was so much that I got to learn from you so thank you!

Tanmoy- Thank you. Thank you, Valerie. It was wonderful talking to you. All the best.

 

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