Suicide scene on Shortland Street raises concern

03:48, Oct 01 2013
Shortland Street
CONTROVERSIAL SCENE: Shortland Street character Len before an apparent suicide attempt.

The portrayal of apparent suicide attempt by an elderly character of New Zealand's most popular television drama series, has raised concerns at the Mental Health Foundation.

In last night's Shortland Street episode on TV2 Len, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's, sent his son and daughter-in-law out for a night on the town.

He was seen dressed in a suit, leaving a note, before heading to the bedroom.

When his granddaughter arrived home, she frantically called for an ambulance and left phone messages saying: "It's granddad, I think he's dead."

Neither TVNZ nor the show's producers had warned the foundation of the story line, its spokeswoman told Fairfax Media.

The foundation issued guidelines on the reporting of suicide, "so that vulnerable readers, viewers, or listeners can access help and support if they need it", she said.

Moira Clunie, development manager for Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand, which is provided by the foundation, said suicide in older people was a topical issue.

"Many families find themselves caring for older relatives, and it is not uncommon for older people to feel that they may be a burden on their children and grandchildren," she said.

"Depression in older people is often not recognised or mistaken for signs of ageing.

"Sadly, some of the people watching last night's show will identify with the character that attempted to take his own life. Evidence suggests that the dramatic portrayal of suicide can affect vulnerable audiences, including older people. Showing attempted suicide on television can increase rates of suicide attempts.

"Given that, it is unfortunate that the episode showed the method chosen by the character to attempt to take his life, and that TVNZ failed to air either a content warning before the show or help lines after it."

It was hoped the producers and broadcaster of Shortland Street would take the opportunity to show how families could pull together when facing an older person in crisis, and highlight the support and services available.

New Zealanders who found themselves in a similar situation to the character or his family could contact Age Concern or Alzheimer's New Zealand. If it was an emergency, they should call 111, Clunie said.

"Also, today is the International Day of the Older Person, and we would encourage people to remember that most older people live full, happy and productive lives," she said.

TVNZ had received no complaints about the episode, spokeswoman Georgie Hills said.

"TV2 did not broadcast a viewer discretion advisory before last night's episode of Shortland Street and we'll be taking another look at it to reassess whether we should have," she said.

"But as a general rule advisories are used to prepare audiences for particularly confronting content that's likely to disturb a significant number of viewers, and where appropriate to direct viewers to further information and support.'"

The developing storyline would explore the emotional impact on the whole family, she said.

"Shortland Street has a long history of dealing with topical and sensitive issues. It does so with a strong sense of social responsibility, presenting a range of perspectives that reflect the different real life experiences of New Zealanders."

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