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The loss of Caroline Flack has put the impact of online abuse on mental health in sharp focus ǀ View

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The British television industry lost a shining star earlier this month when Caroline Flack took her own life at the age of 40. The broadcaster was perhaps best-known for her work on TV shows Love Island, the Xtra Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Her rise through the ranks of the media, however, came at a grave cost to her mental health.

No stranger to abuse on social media, Flack faced a crescendo of cruelty from online trolls towards the end of her life, against a backdrop of negative press coverage from certain British tabloid newspapers. The tears on the cheeks of those who mourn the death of Flack are yet to dry, but now is the time to stop this from happening to anyone else.

Flack was not alone in struggling with poor mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the number of people in the WHO European Region living with poor mental health was 110 million, or 12% of the population. When it comes to looking at the British TV industry, Film + TV Charity found that 87% of film and TV professionals said they had experienced a mental health problem. Love Island, the show that was presented by Flack, had also found itself at the heart of debate regarding the mental wellbeing of participants. Former contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon committed suicide after leaving the show. Since their deaths, some fellow contestants have spoken out about how reality TV shows can negatively impact on an individual’s mental health.

Flack was not alone in struggling with poor mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the number of people in the WHO European Region living with poor mental health was 110 million, or 12% of the population.
Hadley Stewart
Medical journalist

I think Flack’s death is another reminder of the vulnerability faced by those “in the public eye,” during a time when it seems more socially-acceptable to openly criticise and abuse somebody online, than it is to be kind and empathetic. Having looked back at some of Flack’s interviews on British TV, a common question seems to be regarding online trolling. Whilst technology now means that we are more connected than ever before, the behaviour of a minority online can mean that some of us have never felt so alone. I would argue that the mental health needs of celebrities is seldom treated by the public with the compassion is deserves. What’s more, it appears that having a blue tick on Twitter isn’t a shield from online abuse but a target.

Across Europe, we hear of mental health awareness campaigns that are slowly melting away the stigma that silences the voices of those in crisis, but where are the concrete financial investments in mental health services? Across our continent, these services are widely underfunded, under-resourced, and understaffed. The outlook for people living with poor mental health will only favourably change if services are expanded to meet growing demand. We also need to look more closely at mental health promotion, by focusing on practical interventions to counter poor mental health, such as workplace mindfulness sessions and more green spaces in urban areas.

I think Flack’s death is another reminder of the vulnerability faced by those “in the public eye,” during a time when it seems more socially-acceptable to openly criticise and abuse somebody online, than it is to be kind and empathetic.
Hadley Stewart
Medical journalist

When it comes to social media, platforms need to look at ways of protecting their users from facing abuse. There are already tools in place to help users on different social networks, and these vary greatly from platform to platform. Perhaps what is needed now is more consistency in how to report incidents of abuse from other online users. Changes to laws could also be a way of protecting the mental health of those online, potentially reducing the incidence of abuse. However, how the policing of this comes with its own challenges and limitations. I fear that without social media platforms and governments joining forces against inappropriate online conduct, there will be little change.

Moreover, as we start to have more conversations about mental health, let’s also look at the way we treat celebrities online and in the media. As a society, I think it’s very easy to detach ourselves from celebrities, viewing them as almost public property, with little regard for the consequences of our actions towards them. During an interview with ITV News, Meghan Markle noted that “not many people have asked me if I’m OK.” The behaviour we’re seeing from some online users is arguably influenced by certain aspects of the media, and how newspapers, magazines and broadcasters treat celebrities. Markle has herself been horrendously treated by some media organisations and social media users. I think her words needs to stay in the forefront of our minds before we press ‘tweet’ or click on an online article, or engage in any other behaviour that encourages hurtful or hateful rhetoric.

It’s not solely investment in mental health services through health policy reforms that will change things; there also needs to be a change to the reporting and prosecution of online abuse.
Hadley Stewart
Medical journalist

Caroline Flack was clearly loved by many. Since her death, friends have taken to social media to share their disbelief, sadness and memories of her. We will never be able to fully understand the circumstances leading up to Flack’s death. There were a number of sources of personal attacks against her; from a small and loud minority on social media and in the press. Are they solely responsible for her death? That’s a question we’ll never know the answer to. Could more have been done to protect her? Absolutely. Flack’s story will ring true with many who known people who have died by suicide.

The support available to people going through a period of poor mental health remains somewhat limited and, at times, inaccessible. Yet, it’s not solely investment in mental health services through health policy reforms that will change things; there also needs to be a change to the reporting and prosecution of online abuse. Finally, we need to look more carefully at the ways we treat other people online, especially those in the public eye, so we can hopefully prevent this from happening again.

  • Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.

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