Does Sushant `look` depressed? The irresponsible media narrative on mental health

In the wake of increasing awareness on mental health, there seems to be growing debates around suicides in particular. The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has newly triggered these conversations. Even as mental health experts discuss the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illnesses, TV channels like Times Now have played video clips of the actor and asked viewers if he ‘looks’ depressed.

There is one narrative that says, ‘a person who may be suffering from depression or bipolar disorder, sometimes accompanied by paranoia, may attempt self-harm; that which is caused by the person’s mental illness’. A second narrative often finds that there were external conditions that seemed to push the person into taking their own lives, be it stigma, alienation, bullying, physical and sexual violence. These two narratives often get into arguments and conflict with each other in the belief that only one of them is true.

In India, actor Deepika Padukone disclosed being treated for depression and set out to build more awareness about it, challenging stigma and encouraging people to treat it as any other physical illness for which one feels no shame in acknowledging and seeking help.

However, Sushant’s suicide has led to debates around whether it was a consequence of professional bullying and alienation or caused by bipolar disorder and paranoia that the actor was reportedly suffering from, as disclosed by the clinical psychologist who was treating him.

“This ‘either-or’ belief, that suicide may be triggered either by a mental illness OR social conditions, may be incorrect,” argues clinical psychologist Uma Chatterjee, who is also the Director of Sanjog, a non profit organisation. "A person killing themselves isn't a stand-alone event. The act of suicide is a process - personal, social, economic, political circumstances all have to combine for a person to reach that stage where they find no meaning in continuing to live; people kill themselves because all of these factors essentially take away meaning in their life," adds Pompi Banerjee, also a clinical psychologist and activist from Sanjog. 


Psychologist and mental health activist Ratnaboli Ray argues that ‘pathologising suicides is a downplay of social and political factors that lead to a context wherein a person feels alienated, marginalised, helpless. This has a significant impact on suicidal thoughts and self-harming actions. For example, suicide being disproportionately higher amongst farmers than people of more secure professions says something about our policies and structures that marginalise farmers as a community, and push them towards depression’, points out Ray. Ray feels that is it a narrow agenda to look at depression like jaundice or malaria, wherein a person becoming depressed or developing other mental illnesses is seen as purely a consequence of a germ attacking the person with no relevance to the social and political context the person is in.

“There is a direct relationship between violence and mental illness, which is well evidenced globally, by the medical models,” says Uma Chatterjee. “For example - that victims of domestic violence, abuse and rape or even soldiers in combat are likely to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is well evidenced. Similarly, victims of bullying, stigma and threats of alienation and eviction, be it from one’s school or one’s home, a traumatic breakup of a relationship or marriage, may push a person into depression,” she adds.

Does that mean that those who perpetrate and perpetuate that violence are responsible for abetment of suicide if that person kills oneself?

“At a moral level - yes. They may not have intended to kill the person, or even conceived that the person they stigmatise may kill herself or himself, but their actions of bullying, stigmatising, or perpetuating other forms of violence may lie at the roots of the mental illness that got triggered,” says Uma. Uma also cautions that it would not be true to say that all mental illnesses are only triggered by social conditions or triggers, and research now clearly establishes that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

In clinical social work, the Psychosocial Approach looks at individuals in the context of combined influence that psychological factors and the surrounding social environment have on their physical and mental wellness and their ability to function. This approach is used in a broad range of helping professions in health and social care settings as well as by medical and social science researchers[1].

When we find significant rates of suicides amongst certain populations such as high school students or amongst sex workers or farmers or, now, even actors and performers, then one must look at what have been the factors in social environments of these populations that may be a pattern. For example, if farmers’ suicides are overwhelmingly male, then there is a correlation between gender and vulnerability for that population. Similarly, if there is a growing incidence of mental health disorders amongst actors, there may be predisposing factors of stress and anxiety that push some people to commit suicide.

‘Stigma plays a significant role in triggering psychological issues in people,’ says Pompi Banerjee who works with survivors of sexual violence and LGBTQI people. In both these communities, resilience is negatively impacted by the social messaging that ‘something is wrong with you, you are defective, you are sinful, you are not loveable, etc.

“Even though every instance is unique, it would be a mistake to not look at patterns or commonalities between these instances where there is a demographic commonality,” says Pompi. “Statements like - every actor has their own journey, the industry has no structural bias towards any person - is a perspective that is untrained on how systems and collectives (families, organisations, communities or even an industry) may have unconscious biases against certain people, be it the aspiring actors from smaller towns who may not have the ‘markers of a South Bombay kid’ or ‘rebels who challenge industry norms of behaving with their seniors’.” 

The media’s role in building awareness on mental health, and in this case on issues of the link between social environments impacting individuals’ mental health cannot be downplayed. Populist media channels which thrust on the narrative of social victimisation voiced by actor Kangana - whose primary contention has been that Sushant’s suicide was triggered by bullying and alienation by power holders in the Hindi film industry. This narrative downplays or undermines any impact that a psychological illness may have had played in Sushant’s death.

The counter narrative, however, is not as powerful or sensational - that a person suffering from mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder may carry greater predisposition towards suicide. That the media jumps into talking about mental health only in events of death - such as the case for Jia Khan or now Sushant, itself strengthens the stigma towards mental illnesses. For journalists to understand and internalise a psychosocial lens to report on mental illnesses, and how social conditions may create vulnerability, how social and psychological factors together have an impact on people, requires journalists’ education and clauses in the Mental Health Act that prohibits media trials, witch-hunting and sensationalist reporting. 

These conversations must navigate carefully through rabid sensationalism on the one hand and mindless trollers on social media and push a constructivist agenda forward. That it has taken a Sushant Singh’s death for us to react collectively, is sad and our loss. To combat social structures and politics that induce mental illness, education on psychosocial issues of mental health is required.

Roop Sen is a co-founder of Sanjog ( which is a non profit that studies, deconstructs and empowers people and communities to resist violence. Mental health is a thematic area of work for Sanjog.

Disclaimer: This article was first published on The News Minute. Republished here with the author's permission