GEORGETOWN, 19 September 2023 – More than 25 local journalists were trained to report responsibly on suicide, trauma, mass tragedies, and mental health issues during a recent two-day session hosted by the Guyana Press Association. Some journalists were visibly moved by the session, which included instruction on "self-care" for their own mental health when covering stressful events.
With funding from Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) collaborated with the Ministry of Health (MoH) to support the training held earlier this month.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Luis Codina, PAHO/WHO Representative in Guyana, said responsible media coverage plays a key role in improving public comprehension about mental health issues. "I see the media playing a very important role in disseminating information on mental health and other health issues to inform the people for them to practice behavioural change," Dr. Codina said. "That is the role we see you playing. So today, I encourage you all to do better in your reporting and continue to practice writing responsibly to help our people."
Guyana Health Minister Dr. Frank Anthony called on communications media to "help us change the narrative about mental health, particularly suicide, and bring an end to the stigma."
The training was conducted by Ms. Meera Damji, the lead communication officer at the India-based agency Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, and Ms. Manisha Shastri, a research assistant. They focused on equipping journalists with the tools needed for responsible reporting on suicide, mental health, and trauma and mass tragedies as well as self-care.
Guyana's Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Guyana Press Association requested the media training because of what they described as irresponsible reporting on suicide in newspapers and on social media platforms. During the training, reporters received instruction on how to write responsibly on this and other sensitive topics. Journalists were guided to share valuable information that will help people with mental health issues, especially those who might have suicidal thoughts. For example, reporters should include information on who and where people can call to get help.
The training followed the Sept. 12 World Suicide Prevention Day, held annually to focus attention on raising awareness, reducing stigma, and promoting the message that suicides are preventable. This year, PAHO organized a regional event to encourage responsible dissemination of information about suicide in the media and social networks, one of the main evidence-based strategies to prevent it.
"Suicide is a major public health problem for the Americas," said Renato Olivera, head of the PAHO Mental Health Unit.
"The data are staggering. Between 2015 and 2019, more than 93,000 people in the region died by suicide each year, and the suicide rate increased 17% in the same period, making the Americas the only WHO region to record an increase," he added.
Furthermore, he said, "the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the risk factors for suicide, such as unemployment, financial insecurity, and social isolation," so "the battle against suicide requires a collective effort," which includes accessible mental health services integrated into the first level of care, as well as eliminating the stigma about mental illness.
During the training in Georgetown, many journalists were emotionally shaken when asked about their experience covering traumatic events. At one point, the training was halted to give journalists time to compose themselves. Ms. Shastri, who has a social work background, was able to provide support to those who needed it.
One reporter recounted covering a live shootout between police and a suspect, who had been firing randomly at people near the Georgetown Public Hospital. She and her team had to take cover to protect themselves. After the shooting, as she sat on a bench trying to recover, a stranger inquired if she was all right because she was covered in blood.
"We need to take care of our mental health because mental health matters for us, too," the reporter said during the training. "We are human beings. We need to have some support system after covering such events."
At the end of the training, journalists were asked for feedback. Many said they appreciate the self-care part of the training because they are often in stressful "frontline" situations that can affect mental health. They suggested continuing this type of training for journalists and thanked PAHO and the MoH for taking the initiative to support their health and well-being.