Coroner wants more open suicide reporting

OPEN UP: New Zealand's chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean wants coroners to be more open about the facts surrounding suicides.
OPEN UP: New Zealand's chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean wants coroners to be more open about the facts surrounding suicides.

The chief New Zealand coroner wants the reporting of suicide to be more open, saying the current secrecy surrounding the subject is not working.

Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean, speaking to The Southland Times yesterday, said there were between 500 and 600 suicides in New Zealand every year and the number was not going down.

He said he agreed with the South Australian state coroner that suicide was a taboo subject and the community had to know more about it.

In the past five years people had been much more willing to talk about suicide and face up to the topic, Judge MacLean said.

Parents were telling him they needed to know more about the subject. "They are saying, 'we need to know more about this. What is normal behaviour, when do we press the panic button, what can we do?' This is coming through very strongly now."

Parents also wanted the stories of their children who committed suicide told so lessons could be learnt and other parents didn't have to go through the same anguish, he said. "I am sensing people saying, please don't clam this up ... we want to know."

Cyber-bullying had highlighted the issue, with many parents unaware their children were being bullied by text and on Facebook, often late at night, when they were most vulnerable, Judge MacLean said.

The Coroners Act 2006 says a coroner can authorise the particulars of a death to be made public only when satisfied the information is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.

"It creates an extra threshold for coroners to get over," Judge MacLean said.

"I ask coroners to think about individual cases where you can overcome the threshold ... think seriously about whether you can go beyond the bare bones of name, address and occupation so people can understand what really went on - think about it each time, don't just instinctively restrict, just because that's the way you have always done it in the past."

If facts surrounding suicides were published, the coroner could make recommendations to help prevent other cases of a similar nature.

Southland Times editor Fred Tulett last year publicly criticised the Otago/Southland coroner David Crerar for keeping the public in the dark about even basic reports of suicide.

Mr Tulett said Mr Crerar was out of step with his peers. Southland had the highest suicide rate for the South Island in 2009, figures show.

Mr Crerar declined to respond to Judge MacLean's comments yesterday, saying it would be "constitutionally inappropriate" to comment.

Judge MacLean said intense police and media scrutiny on drink-driving, dangerous driving and speeding had helped to reduce the road toll and it was "worth a try" to be more open about suicide, "because the current system isn't making any difference".

People vulnerable to copycat suicides got their information, often wrongly, from social media sites and people in the community - not from the media, he said.

The Southland Times