Is media contributing to mental stress and suicides during Covid?

04 March 2021 8 min. read
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The Covid-19 pandemic is posing a huge threat to human life, killing over 2 million people and counting since it began its rampage across the planet in early 2020. Consequently, in an effort to limit the spread of this deadly virus and prevent it from taking even more lives, governments have been forced to impose strict social restrictions including business closures, curfews and national lockdowns.

But while these measures have been largely necessary for preventing the virus from gaining even more of a foothold and overwhelming our already fragile health services, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the measures put in place are having a damaging impact on mental health, with many people reportedly suffering as a consequence of isolation.

Last October on World Mental Health Day, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released an alarming report that revealed over 51% of respondents to its survey had experienced feelings of anxiety and/or depression since the start of the pandemic. 

Is the media contributing to mental stress and suicides during Covid?

With millions out of work and many experiencing crippling financial difficulties, for some the lack of social interaction has merely compounded a feeling of desolation, and many are now finding it increasingly difficult to cope. This has led some experts to predict a sharp increase in suicides, and we’re already seeing evidence suggesting those predictions being accurate. 

Suicides on the rise

Because of the time it takes to register cases of suicide, coupled with the delays to services caused by the pandemic, the full scale of the impact these social restrictions are having on mental health might not be fully understood for quite a while. However, there’s mounting evidence to suggest there’s been a tragic increase in people taking their own lives since restrictions were first mandated. 

In Japan, one study found a 16% increase during the second wave, while half of England’s ambulance service centres have reported an increase in suicide-related calls. This suggests we might well be in the midst of a second concurrent pandemic, although rather than announcing its presence with a list of obvious and recognisable symptoms, this one’s a silent, stealthy assassin that targets the most lonely and vulnerable in our society. 

Along with a deterioration of public mental health which is a clear and obvious risk factor, we can also look at evidence from previous pandemics – albeit ones on a much smaller scale compared to Covid-19 – to predict whether we’re likely to see more suicides. Sadly, the evidence suggests we are.

Back in 2003, Hong Kong was struck by an outbreak of the Severe Acute Respirator Syndrome (SARS). In that year, studies showed there was a significant increase in suicide-related deaths among those aged 65 and over, which was a sharp upturn from a previous downward trend. The rise was blamed on limited access to healthcare, as well as a lack of social interaction after an enforced lockdown was put in place. 

The role of media

But while we can quite comfortably attribute much of the damage caused to public mental health to the necessary restrictions that have been imposed, one thing that isn’t being considered – at least by most – is the role the media has played.

Many of us are relying on mainstream media as our primary source of information during these dark and turbulent times, but as is often the case mainstream media is reporting the vast majority of its stories concerning the pandemic from a negative perspective.

This is nothing new – it’s a well-known fact that the media prefers to report in this way as the stories tend to attract more attention, but this time it could be having fatal consequences for some as the constant stream of negative reports is undoubtedly affecting the public's outlook. 

During pandemics such as SARS and Covid-19, accurate, balanced and transparent reporting from the media is crucial for dispelling fears, easing uncertainty and bringing people together in a joint effort to combat the dire threat to public health. But while there has been at least some focus from the media on positive stories such as the speed at which the vaccine was engineered and the number of people vaccinated so far, these optimistic reports have been limited in comparison to the seemingly endless coverage given to death statistics and infection rates.

Media reporting on Covid-19

The reasons for this tendency to report negatively could range from the well-meaning to the downright greedy. Without a doubt some outlets – along with the government itself – are pushing this gloomy narrative in an attempt to instil a more cautious mindset in the population, thus helping to limit the spread. Other news organisations, though, will be revelling in the doom and gloom as it sells more newspapers and gets them more clicks. Cash is king, so they say – even if the collateral cost is the avoidable loss of human life. 

In any case, this heightened risk perception by the public has been shown to increase psychological distress. In a study for the British Journal of Health Psychology in November of last year, 501 participants were exposed to Covid-19-related news before being screened for depression with a patient questionnaire. The results of the study found that news exposure was positively associated with depressive symptoms. 

Similarly, the media’s misleading and occasionally xenophobic reporting where some publications referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and even told Chinese kids to “stay home” has caused distress amongst the Chinese community. This brand of biased reporting is known to fan the flames of intolerance which often leads to discrimination, and many overseas Chinese immigrants have reported facing discriminatory treatment since the start of the pandemic, which was no doubt fuelled, at least to some degree, by the unfair reporting we’ve witnessed in some sections of the media. 

Conspiracy theories

Another glaring failure has been the media’s refusal to tackle the raging infodemic that’s arguably as rampant as the virus itself. Conspiracy theories such as the QAnon movement and the ridiculous idea that vaccinations contain microscopic tracking devices are growing at an exponential rate, but the media seems largely disinterested in rebutting these outlandish claims.

Instead, rather than attacking these dangerous and disingenuous theories that do nothing but foster suspicion and allow uncertainty to breed, the media on the whole seems content to allow this hogwash to move through the population infecting anyone gullible enough to believe it.

Sky News Australia have decided to take things a step further – not only is the Murdoch-backed channel refusing to take on the conspiracy theories, but it’s actively promoting them! Traditionally, the News Corp-owned channel had somewhat of a modest audience, dwarfed by some of the bigger news channels in Australia. But with news becoming a hot commodity online, there’s a new, younger audience there for the taking, and Sky News Australia is stopping at nothing to grab a larger piece of the pie. 

In the past the channel was known for delivering high-quality, real-time news during the day, while its late-night segments, known as Sky After Dark, featured commentary and analysis. It’s during these hours that the channel has lurched further to the right, morphing into something akin to the nauseating Fox News in America, with ultra conservative commentary using dog whistles to appeal to the conspiracy-minded in a clear effort to further propel the channel’s digital reach.

Worryingly, it seems to be working. The channel’s YouTube videos have amassed over 500 million views, which is more than any other Australian news organisation. The colossal numbers being raked in by the channel’s Facebook videos are equally impressive, and all this attention means that Murdoch et al are reaping the rewards of the lucrative advertising shares offered by these online platforms – all by pandering to the conspiracy theorists with reckless anti-vaccination and anti-scientific commentary. 

Information above profit and exposure

In a world that was already experiencing a global mental health crisis long before the arrival of Covid-19 with record numbers of people experiencing anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders, the recent restrictions to movement and social contact have exacerbated mental health issues to varying degrees throughout society. But although these measures were undoubtedly necessary for preventing the virus from spreading like wildfire and claiming even more lives, one thing that was certainly not necessary was the media’s consistently pessimistic portrayal of the events. 

During this time of crisis, now more than ever, we need our media organisations to prioritise the delivery of clear and accurate information over the maximisation of profit and exposure. Sadly, as we’ve seen with Sky News Australia, in many cases that simply isn’t happening, and the damage being done both in terms of public opinion and public mental health could be disastrous. It could take us decades to recover. 

An article by Darryl Rigby from the Immigration Advice Service, a legal consultancy for immigration topics.