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Mental Health

This Pandemic’s Media Epidemic: The Social Media Response to Sushant Singh Rajput’s Suicide

Edited By: Lasya Adiraj

 

Trigger Warning: suicide, self harm, mental health, depression

 

To begin with, a disclaimer: the circumstances surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death are out of the ordinary, given the various allegations ranging from the death being a murder by the “Bollywood Mafia” to it simply being the end of a life riddled with depression and mental illness. In this piece I do not attempt to push any specific agenda, much less speculate about the true cause and circumstance of his passing. For the most part, this article is simply a reflection and reaction to the social media response to the event, which was primarily reported as a suicide. 

 

On 14th June, when I saw the inShorts notification pop up on my phone, I was sitting in bed, preoccupied with the endless stream of stories on Instagram. Sushant Singh Rajput commits suicide. I was taken aback, not for any personal investment in the matter or person but simply because it seemed, as many put it, “out of the blue”. I let it sink in and told myself again that his life was not something I knew in the least, and what was out of the blue for me was likely a culmination of events and circumstances Sushant Singh Rajput had been struggling with for a while. Just like I expected, within the hour, the aforementioned Instagram stories, once filled with pictures of food and dogs and #quarantinetales were now expressing condolences and regrets for a life taken too soon. The stories ranged from a simple “rest in peace” to people even elaborating on their own experiences. The posts were touching, and it started to become clear that the actor had been important to a lot of people, even if it was just as a distant influence. Unsurprisingly, the posts ranged from displays of condolence to mental health awareness and many people, influencers and otherwise, started sharing helpline numbers, mental health “tips and tricks” and information pamphlets to help their audiences, be it a hundred people or a hundred thousand. This was amplified by SSR’s latest release Chhichhore,  having a suicide attempt be a main driving point for the plot, and it seemed to show people that anyone can be going through anything. Until this point, which was reached within a few hours of the news breaking, I had no problems with anything I had seen. I had decided to take a little break from the socials, at least in terms of the content I was consuming, to ensure that I didn’t stumble upon anything that impacted my mental health. But surprisingly, that 2-3 day break wasn’t even close to enough.

 

The first time I realized that this case was out of the ordinary was when, after almost a week of discussions, mourning, and social media outrage, the conversations around the actor had not halted. I do not want to or mean to impose a ticking clock on grief, which is why I initially mistook this continued interest in the case as a turning point in the discussion around mental health in India and in the spotlight. I was wrong, obviously. Hence, this article.

 

Two things caught my eye. First, the string of conspiracy theories and accusations that erupted, spearheaded by Kangana Ranaut who seemed set to expose the whole of Bollywood as the gang it was. Seeing this made my stomach turn, because the whole thing seemed to be capitalizing on a tragic event for the sake of a PR stunt. It got more out of hand when the conversations alluded directly to murder and apparent experts were called in to prove that the situation could not have been a suicide. But this, while confusing, was not the most surprising thing to happen that week. 

 

My interest was piqued with a video posted by Santoshi Shetty, a fashion blogger and Instagram influencer. In this video, she spoke of “Flying Cheese”, an initiative taken by her to “be there” for her followers for a “nominal fee”-- she was charging 1500 for an hour of being an online friend. At least, that’s what the better scenario would be. The worst, albeit more likely situation is that she was capitalizing on a recent death, the flurry of mental health discussion, and people’s vulnerability to spread the narrative that therapy was just something your friends could provide you (in exchange for money, of course).

 

I want to clarify that I am not taking anything out of context. The video she originally posted, which has now been deleted, pictured her speaking about “being there” for people and calling the one hour conversation a “session”. She referred to it as a platform and spoke in the caption about having used this same initiative for her own healing, and wanting to spread positivity. The biggest problems I, and many other people, had with this post were largely contextual. Since this came out only a few weeks after SSR’s suicide, and the conversations about the same were very much still ongoing, it seemed to be an attempt to turn the conversation towards herself. What seemed to be in even poorer taste was the fact that she was charging money for it. Don’t get me wrong: I love hearing from friends that I can reach out to them in tough times, and that they’re there for me. But imagine telling a friend your asthma is acting up, only for them to not only suggest  you take a cup of tea for it, but also charge you money. That’s what diplomatic language, that seems to work towards open conversation and moral support, sounds like when it’s combined with a nominal fee that rivals what my actual therapist charges me. 

 

I could sit and preach spiderman’s mantra, but you all know that power implies responsibility. But that responsibility isn’t just towards the people you’re talking to when you post an Instagram story with 11 hashtags and a fitness tea sponsorship. It extends to the people whose experiences you are manipulating in order to reap your own benefits. This initiative would at best have had no real impact on her followers, but besides the fact that 1500 rupees in exchange for nothing seems like a big loss, it could have also lead to disastrous outcomes, which is what happens when someone with no psychological training takes on the responsibility of even one more person’s mental health, let alone the 700k+ people that follow Santoshi Shetty. To her credit, she took down the post after severe backlash from her audience, emphasising (as any influencer who messed up does) her pure intentions and how we, the audience, misconstrued her well-meaning offer for something that it wasn’t. 

 

I won’t discredit the fact that she did not start the sessions at all, and went back to her influencer ways in no time. But the larger message to acknowledge is about the discussions surrounding mental health in the public sphere. Santoshi Shetty, who I seem to have scapegoated for this article, is by no means the worst example of this kind of situation, nor the only one. But mental health isn’t about feelings. It’s about support or friends or positive attitudes as much as any other illness; a walk on a sunny day won’t cure your mesothelioma. Therapy being inaccessible and unaffordable is an obstacle in and of itself but the solution is definitely not to trivialize the issue or offer something just as expensive, but nowhere near as useful. Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, which seemingly kicked off this entire chain of events, is still being tossed about casually in news reports, Whatsapp messages, and even memes. I cannot say for sure whether the overwhelmingly true-crime nature of this event is only because they genuinely want to find out whodunnit, or if the Indian media is still unwilling to accept mental illness and suicide as serious and likely issues. Either way, this response is woefully inadequate in both regards. Trivialising mental health issues only leads to a stagnation of healthy mental health discourse. It also elevates the possibility of future cases of this nature, something that I'm sure we all would like to avoid.

 

Hello! My name is Manjima. I'm a first year student, and I love to write. I'm a singer (in my own room) and I am recently passionate about politics, philosophy, films, and music.
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