When a 14-year-old girl recently committed suicide in Mumbai, the general public paid little heed to the reasons or the impact on the family. Doing the rounds on social media was a graphic video showing that teen climbing onto her apartment window ledge before jumping off to her death. While the shock of the video cannot easily leave our minds, careless reporting of such news does more than create shock value. A study by journal PLOS One in February 2018 reported that after the suicide by actor Robin Williams in 2014, suicide rates across the country rose by 10 per cent. Closer home celebrity suicides, which were graphically reported by the media, led to a similar surge in suicide rates.
What is the impact of such media reports on young minds?
In India, the I&B Ministry hasn’t laid down laws regarding responsible media portrayal of sensitive issues. Unfortunately this encourages the media and uninformed viewers to promote and share shocking content in the guise of “spreading awareness”. But the effect is unfortunately the opposite; it creates a suicide contagion. The teen population is particularly vulnerable. A 2017 WHO report titled “Mental Health Status of Adolescents in South-East Asia” found that 25 per cent of Indian students admit to feeling depressed. This is further backed by reports from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 where suicide was reported as the biggest killer of 15- to 24-year-olds in India. And most recently, a report released by the Health Ministry titled “India: Health of the Nation’s States 2017” found that the leading reasons for injury burden among the youth is suicide and self-harm. This makes teens and young adults a high-risk population for suicide.
To recognise why we need to be responsible reporters of shocking news, especially for the youth, let’s understand the teenage brain. Nicola Morgan, the author of Blame My Brain, says that in teenagers, the part of the brain which seems to be working overtime is the amygdala, a tiny almond shaped structure in our emotional [limbic] brain, linked to gut reaction and raw emotion. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex—the part of our brain that allows us to calm ourselves down, make rational decisions, and think logically—has not yet fully developed.
The theory goes that our neurons [brain cells] are insulated by a fatty substance called myelin, which is essential for controlled and healthy functioning of our nervous system. The process of insulation starts from the lowest parts of our brain and the last area to be myelinated, well into adulthood, is our pre-frontal cortex. Since the process of myelination has not been completed in teen brains, this explains the knee-jerk reactions and “motor-mouth” talk we associate so well with teenagers. Therefore, we need to be extra careful around young minds as they are unable to think completely logically; they can’t differentiate reality from their inner world nor judge consequences well. More importantly, the underdeveloped teenage brain makes this age group most vulnerable to depression and impulsive acts. That’s why when people argue that they share videos to make teens aware of such cases, my response is that this is counter-productive and can, in fact, add to the problem. The evidence is that in the days following this suicide case and the sharing of that video, the average number of calls I receive from troubled teens multiplied; many of them expressed that they were having suicidal thoughts.
The same “suicide contagion effect” was observed just after the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was released. Soon after the series was released, there was an increase in Google searches for ‘how to commit suicide’ and ‘teen suicide’.
What does depression in teens look like?
If moodiness in teens is the norm, then how does a parent tell if their teen is depressed? The signs below can help differentiate between teenage mood swings and clinical depression. Parents may notice the following signs periodically in their own teen; however action needs to be taken only if the teen consistently displays these signs for more than two weeks.
- Repeatedly saying “Life is hopeless,” “it’s better to end things”
- Crying a lot for no explainable reason and fearful being left alone
- Changes in appetite, significant weight gain or loss.
- Loss of energy, complaining of constant tiredness
- Attempts at self-harm [cutting self, drug overdose]
- Losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed like sports, drama
- Withdrawing from friends and family. Friends complaining that the teen doesn’t stay in touch.
- Giving away favourite belongings, comments like “Everyone will be better off without me.”
- Depressed teens often post their feelings on social media in the form of sad songs, dark stories/poems or sad forwards of death, dying or hopelessness.
- An increase in the use of drugs or alcohol
- Poor performance in school, falling grades, frequent absences.
- Pessimistic and critical comments about themselves, school or home, and getting overly sensitive to rejection.
Here are some things we can do as a society to prevent teen suicides
Any information received about suicide, self-harm, depression needs to be verified before being posted on social media or broadcasted on WhatsApp. Avoid forwarding videos and images about graphic portrayals of celebrity suicides or other types of deaths. There is no need to view or share those details.
If you teen shows signs of depression then take measures to keep the environment safe. Remove sharp objects and dangerous ingestible substances. Keep a watch on your teen’s outings and store contacts details of their friends. Request them that you will periodically check their phones [in their presence]. Install content-control software to ensure your teen is not being exposed to age-inappropriate content on the web. Educate them about general safety and cyber safety.
Be a moderator, not a helicopter
Despite the safety you may try to establish, reality is that your child may be exposed to graphic portrays of self-harm and suicide [the blue whale challenge, TV series such as “13 reasons why”, social media material]. Out of anxiety, parents end up helicoptering teens which causes more resentment and secretiveness. A balanced approach is to communicate about their feelings regarding these experiences. Ask how it impacts them and assure them you are with them no matter what.
Monitor physical health
Take your teen for regular health check-ups to test for deficiencies in vitamins D3 and B12 as low levels of these usually masquerade as depression. Ensure that the child is not eating too many sugary foods as these can cause a sugar-rush followed by a sudden drop in energy, creating a cycle of “high-low” moods. Studies show that morning hunger is strongly linked to depression so ensure that your teen does not leave home on an empty stomach. Physical exercise is a must to reduce low moods. As per the WHO, even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise is sufficient for good health.
Insist on good sleep
One major study has shown that sleep-deprived people are 40 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression. Research shows that teens need more than nine hours of sleep. Lesser sleep builds up a sleep debt and makes the teen lose out on REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep, which is important for memory and learning.
Be informed and communicate
Read up on teenage years [those that talk about the teen brain are often very informative]. It will help create a sense of empathy about what teens are going through and reduce your frustration as a parent. Keep your communication channels open and encourage your teen to share. Don’t judge their secrecy; it’s a part of growing up and creating their space. When teens feel comfortable, they share what is on their mind. Demonstrate rational thinking and controlled behaviour, as these will be models for your teen to replicate as they step into adulthood.
Seek professional help
Often only a mental health professional [psychiatrist/psychologist] can correctly diagnose if the teenager is depressed. Such professionals will run tests and interview the child to differentiate transient mood swings from depression. Trust the expert to provide professional help and work with them to help your child attain good mental health.
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