The tragic details surrounding a young mother's suicide can be made public after a coroner gave media permission to report particulars of her death, in a break with convention.
The move allows reporting into the death of Manawatu mother Luana Mary Nicholson, and comes after Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean said late last year that the responsible reporting of suicides could save lives.
The Health Ministry discourages media reporting of suicide methods or frequent or repetitive publication of suicide, citing the risk of copycat attempts which could lead to further deaths.
Under the Coroner's Act 2006, details surrounding a self-inflicted death can be made public only if the coroner rules that disclosing the information is "unlikely to be detrimental to public safety".
In a decision made public yesterday, Palmerston North coroner Tim Scott ruled that "any and all" details of his finding into the death of Ms Nicholson could be published.
"I do not think it can be detrimental to public safety to make public the details of Luana's death.
"Sad and tragic as it is, death by hanging is a very common method of suicide in New Zealand. It is the most common method.
"There is nothing particularly mysterious about it and publication of details here, should the media wish to do so, is not going to make it any more likely that people will take their lives by hanging in the future. Sadly this is a given, the method is so well-known."
A mother of three, Ms Nicholson lived with her partner of one year, Shannon Wilson, in Dannevirke.
She gave birth to a boy only weeks before her death.
"Shannon and Luana's relationship had its ups and downs. From time to time Luana would go to her parents' place to escape the relationship but would always return to Shannon."
Shortly before Ms Nicholson's death, another young woman who enjoyed a "friendship" with Mr Wilson was killed in a car accident.
"What is clear is that Luana felt envious or jealous of the friendship, whatever its nature might have been," Mr Scott said.
Despite having no history of psychiatric or mental health problems, she had made at least one threat to kill herself during the early stages of her pregnancy.
The day before Ms Nicholson hanged herself, Mr Wilson found a note on top of a pile of clothes. The coroner concluded this was a suicide note from Ms Nicholson, though she did not sign it.
"[Mr Wilson] did not realise the significance of the note when he found it and ignored it with tragic circumstances. I direct no criticism at Shannon as it is one thing to recognise the significance of something in hindsight and quite another to recognise it going forward."
The situation was a clear reminder to look carefully at what may appear to be cryptic messages and signals that may have more than one meaning, Mr Scott said.
The next day was Christmas Eve and Ms Nicholson and Mr Wilson visited relatives. They returned home to their flat about 10pm and went to bed. Later, Mr Wilson woke up and saw Ms Nicholson leaving the bedroom.
"He thought she was going outside for a smoke and nothing was said between them."
When she had not returned 10 minutes later, he went outside. "It was then that he found her hanging from a tree."
He grabbed hold of her, lifting her from the ground. He called out for help and another relative and several strangers came to his aid, cutting her down from the tree.
Mr Wilson had done "his very best" to try to save Ms Nicholson, Mr Scott said.
She died in Palmerston North Hospital on December 29.
Mr Scott concluded there was no clear reason why Ms Nicholson committed suicide. "Be that as it may, the burden of life became too much for Luana and she took her life."
The opportunity for media to report the details of the tragedy may make it less likely similar deaths would occur in future, Mr Scott said. "I believe I owe that much to Luana and her whanau, to allow the media that opportunity should they wish it."
Ministry deputy director of mental health Susanna Every-Palmer said research consistently showed that reporting details of an individual's self-inflicted death may be associated with a subsequent increase in suicide and suicide attempts among vulnerable people ... regardless of whether the method used was a common one.
"Although the coroner has authorised the publication of the manner of death in this case, whether the media choose to publish these details or not is at their discretion."
We can't bury our heads in the sand
Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean says any ruling by a coroner to make details of a death public is an individual and discretionary decision.
"There [are] 540-odd suicides a year in New Zealand and I say to my coroners: Each time you make the decision you need to think about the discretion you have about publication. There is the statutory hurdle there that you cannot cross without being satisfied it will not cause public harm. I've consistently said: Isn't it time for a gentle opening up; don't go overboard, but let's not continue necessarily with the concept that it's totally taboo to talk about it.
"Increasingly, we are actually finding that families who perhaps in the past would have said 'No, no we don't want anything to get out, we want you to even suppress their name', are now saying, 'We have nothing to be ashamed of, we've got nothing to hide, we actually think it would be good for others to see what we went through and perhaps learn what the warning signs are.'
"Society is moving and there is a tendency to say, better this to happen out in the open than continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend this doesn't exist. The reality is, suicide knows no age barrier, it ranges from 11 years of age up to 85."
Those in crisis or concerned about someone who may be in crisis can call these confidential helplines:
- The Dominion Post
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