‘The Effect of Media Influence on Young Women with Depression’ talks about how young women can be adversely affected by the media, both in the way it portrays body image and the way suicide is reported in the media. This can lead to teenage depression due to a lack of self-worth or can trigger copycat suicides. This is seen in a few recent cases in Ireland and has a lot of media speculation around the topic at the moment with new guidelines and campaigns being set up. Talking to representatives from the HSE, Pieta House, the Samaritans and Suicide Ireland about their thoughts completed this.
YOUTH suicide has taken a front seat in the public spotlight over the last number of months and with suicide rates in Ireland rising over the years, the topic of youth depression is on everyone’s lips.
According to statistics from the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF) in 2011, suicide rates stand at a four male to one female ratio. Suicide among young women was highlighted in 2012 due to a number of tragic deaths. The deaths of Ciara Pugsley, Erin Gallagher and her sister Shannon evoked public outrage. Organisations within the Government and the media immediately began work on combatting the lack of resources for young people suffering from depression.
Youth depression can stem from a number of factors and is an extremely complex condition. Bullying, unhappiness at home or in school and self-esteem issues are just some of the most common to arise in youth depression. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which of these factors can cause a young person to contemplate suicide, it is usually the culmination of a number of factors and every individual reacts differently. As one of the most serious factors to lead to teen depression, what can the media do to help prevent body image issues that can trigger these reactions?
The media is a conflicting interest in itself and for women, limiting bad exposure can make all the difference. Samaritans produce Media Guidelines on how to responsibly report suicide to reduce the risk of copycat behaviour. Lorna Fraser, Press Officer for Samaritans says, “We work closely with the media industry, advising on responsible reporting and portrayal of suicide and self-harm. Research demonstrates a strong link between suicide reporting/portrayal and copycat behaviour among vulnerable people. We know that self-harm is carried out by young people, particularly young women, and this group are the most vulnerable in terms of media portrayal, as young people are more influenced by what they see/hear in the media than any other audience.”
With the gender split comes a difference in how certain factors affect men and women. The influence of the media has a more profound effect on women, especially in relation to self-image. In the My World Survey undertaken in 2012 by Irish youth mental health organisation Headstrong and representatives at University College Dublin, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale showed that women are far more prone to self-esteem issues than men. The study found that self-esteem was a major issue for a young person at the age of 12 in their first year of secondary school, more so than any other age category. It dropped dramatically throughout their teenage years. Scores ranged between 10 and 40 on this Rosenburg scale and the average for males was over 30, scoring far higher than females with 27.31.
This is down to a number of reasons, one of which can be seen as an effect of vulnerability to fashion media, such as magazines and celebrity diets. The pressure of industries like this can have a catastrophic impact on both the audience and participants and is evident in the deaths of high-profile names such as Alexander McQueen, Lucy Gordon and Isabella Blow, and attempted suicides in models like Noémie Lenoir, Charlotte Dawson and CariDee English.
A counsellor who has worked with various mental health organisations sees body image as a huge issue in youth depression and blames the media in part for how young women see themselves. “Body issue is definitely a major issue. Young girls have this pressure to look like perfect women and it’s an awful lot to deal with. This really damages their self-esteem and has an awful effect on young girls, which obviously can lead to depression.”
Whether women are modelling themselves or just trying to emulate the ideal of that ‘perfect woman’, this can create a lot of emotional and mental issues, in particular the inability to be happy in their own skin. As this counsellor says, an unrealistic body image in the media can have a more profound impact on impressionable women than we think.
“For a girl to be a top model, she has to be starting at 14 – before she has even developed, that’s the way they are told that they need to look so they try to keep a 14 year body when they are 20 years of age. Everything is based around an image and they are trying to keep that image even when their body needs to develop more but they preserve themselves around that. They have to try and keep that flat chested, no hips look. Its a lot of pressure on young girls and women.”
Following the sudden deaths of these three young schoolgirls, rules for both the media and schools were swiftly brought into motion for the start of 2013. On January 31, 2013, Minister for Mental Health Kathleen Lynch launched guidelines on the promotion of mental health and suicide prevention in post-primary schools in order to create an environment in which young people can talk about their issues without fear of stigma. The Reach Out strategy set up by the HSE in 2005 is being re-worked to include factors like social media bullying that were not included in the original statement, but have become prominent over the last number of years.
HSE Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention Mary O’Sullivan says that the media has a huge part to play in the campaign against suicide prevention in Ireland. “The media are allies to us in terms of promoting a positive message and communicating where support is available and making people feel less alone with their problems. But if information is reported in a less helpful way, potentially it can lead to copycat suicides so the media have a huge responsibility around how material is being presented. We know that there is a relationship between bad reporting in the media and suicide. That’s where we need to work well together.”
Websites like Ask.fm and Facebook are sometimes seen as a catalyst for youth suicide, places where young girls, in particular, go to receive validation amongst their peers. This can have disastrous consequences as we have seen in recent months and are forums where people can abuse others anonymously. However, Ms O’Sullivan sees the rise of technology as a positive thing when it comes to helping people with their issues. She speaks about various websites and apps that have been created to help teens deal with their mental health issues. “Technology has created a medium that people feel very comfortable using that can lead them to get the support that they need. The rise of Spunout.ie in the last couple of years or Reachout.com (Inspire Ireland), they’ve all done fabulous work around having targeted sites for young people.”
Sean O’Byrne, the founder of Suicide Ireland, speaks about the stigma surrounding mental health in Ireland and how important it is to strike a balance between banishing the stigma and normalising the subject of suicide, “These days there is a lot more pressure to be something other than you, this pressure is ginormous. Years ago there was one magazine or a few TV channels or one pop idol to influence us. Now there is an abundance of outlets to say and hear things.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done to publicise mental health but there is a certain amount that can be put in the media. If there is too much, we become desensitized and the subject won’t be as shocking,” he added.