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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Senior mental health professionals write open letter asking media to avoid distressing cremation images, panic-inducing stories

Dear News Media Outlets,

As professionals working in mental health related domains, we felt compelled to write an open letter to everyone, especially our friends in the media, on the events of the past few weeks.

With great power comes great responsibility, it is said In an unprecedented crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, responsibility acquires even greater importance.

Mass media has the power to communicate to millions at the same time. When the reach is so huge, every word, every image and every nuance matters. However, what we are seeing on our TV screens, mobile screens and newspapers is disconcerting, to put it very mildly.

Images of bodies burning in cremation grounds, relatives of the deceased wailing inconsolably, emotional outbursts and hysterical reporters with cameramen swarming over the bereaved who are going through deeply emotional moments – these may help garner eyeballs. But there is a steep price to be paid for such coverage.

As it is, due to the pandemic-related restrictions and guidelines, people are unable to go out and live a normal, social life. This is already fostering a hidden mental health epidemic with people becoming depressed, lonely and anxious. Stuck at home, people turn to the televisions or social media even more than earlier. But when they see such disturbing and depressing visuals, they are pushed much deeper into the abyss.

We are sure that reporting on sensitive issues, especially during this time of difficulty is not easy, even for journalists. If the news you are reporting affects you so much, then imagine the Impact it has on the people who are watching.

Imagine someone has just tested positive for COVID-19. If they have witnessed the panic-inducing coverage from cremation grounds. it keeps weighing on their minds and that of their loved ones. The fact that a huge number of people who are infected by COVID-19 recover becomes immaterial. Only images and emotions stay with them.

There are many people with mild or moderate COVID- 19 who may be recovering at home. Will a positive frame of mind help them recover better or will an atmosphere of hopelessness do so? This is a matter for our friends in the media to reflect upon.

Yet again. we are not saying that facts should not be reported. We are saying that hysteria and panic-inducing coverage should be avoided.

Apart from harming people’s mental health, such reportage also has other consequences.

Reporting a shortage of one particular commodity is the right thing to do so that action can be taken. But it also needs to be specified where exactly the shortage is, rather than make it look like a universal shortage. Because human psychology is such that, the more noise people hear about shortages, the more they will run after that commodity and try to hoard it. This creates a vicious cycle of more shortages or people panicking because they are unable to get things they may not even need!

As mental health professionals, we can tell you that specific information empowers people and prepares them to face any challenge. But panic weakens them.

When are certain medicines needed? When do patients need to look for oxygen? When should they go to a hospital? What percentage of people recover from COVID-19 just while being at home? Are there organisations working to help people even at such times? Are there hopeful stories of human triumph? How can people seek help in times of an emergency? Many of these things may not be clear to most common people even after watching hours of news. Perhaps these aspects can be emphasised upon prominently.

Remember, that none knows about the exact mental health situation of every person who’s watching you or reading you. There’s no way to say which image or which word can be the last straw for someone, causing grievous damage to their mental health. Therefore, responsibility matters.

In such times, the media has great power to inform, educate and most importantly, infuse hope in the people. This includes the sharing of authentic information and allaying of fears. These are extremely important weapons in this fight against the pandemic.

Therefore, we request our friends in the media to show restraint in their coverage without compromising upon facts or public interest.

You are our eyes and ears. You matter. What you say, show or write matters. You are important partners along with frontline workers both in the healing process and in providing hope, as well as support for those in grief.


BN Gangadhar, President, Ethics and Medical Registration Board, National Medical Commission New Delhi.
Pratima Murth, Professor and Head, Dept of Psuchiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru
Gautam Saha, President, Indian Psychiatry Society
Rajesh Sagar, Professor of Psychiatry, AIIMS, New Delhi

(Source: ANI tweet)

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