Last week The Dominion Post reported a coroner's findings on the death of mother- of-three Luana Nicholson, of Dannevirke. Palmerston North coroner Tim Scott ruled that she took her own life. In a departure from convention, Mr Scott exercised his legal right to grant the media permission to publish the way Ms Nicholson died. He said he did not think it could be detrimental to public safety to reveal details. That report has highlighted the debate over the way suicide is reported in New Zealand.
Losing a child to suicide plunges a family not only into the most profound grief imaginable but also into a shadowy world of secret codes and removal of the right to free speech.
When a child is raped or murdered, the facts and circumstances leading to them are reported and openly discussed. Parents, communities and governments make changes in the way they operate as a result of the knowledge gained from this discussion.
By contrast, reporting on the suicide of a child cannot involve reporting the facts but is allowed only to hint at them using euphemisms such as "no suspicious circumstances".
Families of suicide victims learn quickly that to use the word suicide in a funeral notice, post news of their tragedy on Facebook or seek contact with others who have experienced suicide through message boards or blogs is an offence punishable by a fine of $1000.
In the aftermath of the suicide of a child, most families want two things - answers about what led to their child's death and for the lessons learnt from that death to be used to prevent other children and their families experiencing the same tragedy. Bizarrely, our current legislation and practice prevent this happening.
While the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy has as a goal collecting better data on suicide with a view to preventing suicide deaths, recent changes to the Coroner's Act have strengthened the secrecy around suicide and removed the requirement for investigating the circumstances leading to suicide deaths.
Inquests into suicide deaths are critically important to understanding and preventing a problem that is responsible for 10 per cent of the deaths of 10-year- olds to 14-year-olds, and which kills more young people than all medical causes combined in New Zealand. However, the changes to the Coroner's Act mean that, increasingly, coroners make their findings behind closed doors without conducting an inquest. When coroners conduct inquests, legislation requires that information about what led to a suicide is kept secret.
Families wanting to share the stories of their children in the hopes of preventing more deaths are required to argue for a coroner to allow them to do so. While the debate is on the reporting of data, little is being said about the fact that we are gathering less information about suicide than in the past.
Most of us who have lost children to suicide believe that if we had had more information about the subject, our children's deaths could have been prevented. In many cases, we have evidence that changes to the practices of agencies and institutions with which our children were involved are necessary to prevent others from dying from suicide.
We believe our children's stories provide valuable data to prevent suicide in other families. We wish we had heard the stories of other families and learnt the lessons from their children's deaths before we lost our own.
Just as silence and ignorance allowed family violence, child abuse and incest to flourish, the secrecy and ignorance that surround suicide provide an environment in which the self-inflicted deaths of New Zealanders continue to rise. Silence and secrecy have never solved any social problems.
People may be uncomfortable discussing the reality that New Zealand children hang, poison and stab themselves at twice the rate of American and Australian children, but ignoring the subject will not make it go away - not for our families who live with this reality every minute of every day and not for the 10 families who will join our numbers every week in New Zealand.
A small number of "experts" in New Zealand have built lucrative careers on being the only people allowed to talk about suicide in New Zealand.
It is time for a comprehensive review of our approach to suicide prevention in New Zealand and for open discussion and robust debate on the issue to replace silence and secrecy. We must tell the stories of the dead to protect the living.
Maria Bradshaw is from Casper (Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education and Research).
Seeking help Those in crisis or concerned about someone who may be in crisis can call these confidential helplines: Lifeline 0800 543 354 Samaritans 0800 726 666 Depression 0800 111 757
- The Dominion Post
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