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What Burari death memes tell us about the state of mental health awareness in India

Psychotherapists say we need to educate ourselves about how such content can affect someone dealing with suicidal thoughts

Such posts can be triggering for people struggling with their own mental health
Such posts can be triggering for people struggling with their own mental health (Pexels)

Scores of memes have surfaced online in response to the Netflix documentary, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, which was released worldwide on October 8. The series traces a three-year-long investigation into the death of 11 members of the Chundawat family in Delhi’s Burari area, recently ruled by the police as mass suicide, likely triggered by a shared psychosis in the family. A month since the documentary’s release, Lalit and Bhopal Singh, names that should have served as a grim reminder of the deplorable state of mental health in the country, have unfortunately become the mainstay of multiple meme formats. From loss in a cricket match to a politician’s white lies, every other major event is now memefied using their reference.

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This trivialisation of mental health is especially appalling when you consider the latest data from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). According to the data, the country reported 1.53 lakh suicides in 2020, the highest it has seen in ten years. The number of deaths by suicide went up by 10% from 381 per day in 2019 to approximately 419 per day. That's a life lost every 3 minutes.

Mental health professionals believe that the proliferation of these memes points to our apathy towards mental health in general and suicide in particular. It underscores, yet again, that we need to educate ourselves as a society about how such content can affect someone dealing with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. “People are less likely to seek help in the presence of a culture where others will make a joke of their situation,” says Tanuja Babre, a mental health professional who has worked with iCall, a mental health helpline to provide immediate professional counselling over the phone or online. Such posts can be even more triggering than the news reports on the tragedy, she explains. “The nature of the internet is such that you see it when you least expect it, which exasperates your existing feelings of despair.”

Despite the alarming numbers, “our work shows that most people do not have access to suicide prevention services that work for them,” says Jasmine Kalha, program manager and research fellow at the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy (CMHLP) who co-led the creation of an online free course on how to report on suicide responsibly. In the absence of adequate support, memes like the ones mocking the Burari deaths “might further reduce someone's help-seeking behaviour,” adds Kalha.

Of course, not everyone has found these posts funny. Multiple netizens called an Instagram user, with roughly 40,000 followers, “insensitive” for collating and reposting such memes that mocked a deeply affecting and unsettling tragedy. Individuals posted online admitting these memes were triggering for them. A trauma therapist active on social media urged the memers to confine these memes to personal chats instead of sharing them publicly.

And with good reason. This type of content enables the individualisation of suicide, says Pooja Nair, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist and consultant MHP with Mariwala Health Initiative. “You don’t crack jokes on poverty or hunger because, unlike suicide, these are recognised as social issues,” she adds. “By posting these memes, you’re essentially telling someone with suicidal thoughts: We don’t care about you, this is your individual struggle.”

Psychotherapists say such content can be particularly triggering for those closely related to the deceased and people with similar lived experiences. They also refute the memers’ argument that such memes help them and others deal with the traumatic response the documentary evokes.

“Do you joke about people’s suffering, or the constructs that made them suffer, such as the lack of mental health services, unemployment, gender-based violence amongst other factors?” asks Kalha. “Instead of informing and educating themselves, the memers promoted content that was not in line with the evidence that insensitive reporting can increase suicide deaths, just for a few likes,” she adds.

A few psychologists also said the documentary’s handling of the story could have fuelled inappropriate memes. “Most professionals in the documentary emphasised how spine chilling or unbelievable the incident was. Very few were able to provoke a more purposeful conversation about the psychiatric symptoms and how trauma, societal conditions, interpersonal relationships, family dynamics and conflicts can interact to cause such an incident,” says Shreya Panjwani, a clinical psychologist from Delhi. Netflix India and the documentary’s director, Leena Yadav, did not respond to Mint’s emailed queries. However, it is important to note that Netflix itself did not memefy the series on social media despite memefication being an integral part of its regular promotional strategy.

A research paper from last month proposes that putting suicide memes in the same bracket as gallows humour could be deceptive. “We contend that they [suicide memes] are characteristic of our everyday, inauthentic relationship with death. This relationship is one of trivialisation and avoidance, which obscures the personal reality, and inevitability, of one’s own death,” concludes the paper authored by Nicholas Smith from the department of philosophy at the University of California, along with Shannah Linker, an independent scholar. The paper was published in the journal, Mortality, which focuses on the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.

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The debate on suicide memes is not a new one. In 2013, the British Medical Journal published a paper criticising a Vice article titled “Last words” from its June issue. The article, which was soon removed from the publication’s site, contained photographs of “glamorous stagings” of the last moments of popular female authors like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Dorothy Parker, who had died by suicide. Yet, the pictures from the spread had been memefied much before the article was taken down.

This behaviour points to a broader societal issue, says Nair. “Of social media influencers leveraging an already-silent discourse on suicide for clout.” It stems from a place of entitlement and privilege, coupled with an absence of empathy, she adds. This discourse needs to shift so that influential users stop taking people’s mental health casually just to gain social media rewards, says Kalha. “If people with lived experiences are constantly going to be stigmatised by these memes, how will they ask for help? The clout-chasers need to ask this of themselves.”

If you are feeling distressed or have suicidal thoughts, please seek help now. Dial this 24x7 suicide prevention helpline: 91-9820466726

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