Silence on issue is not helping

Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean
Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean

Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean believes New Zealanders need to pull their heads out of the sand and face up to suicide in this country.

But he doesn't think we need to go as far as Australians who want to "shatter the silence" around it.

Judge MacLean is in New Plymouth for three days to talk about suicide prevention.

The rules on the media's reporting of suicides should be eased up, he said. "Because people want to know more."

There was a growing public awareness that "540-odd" suicides in a country with a population of just over 4 million was of concern, he said.

One view was that to talk about suicide was asking for trouble and would lead to more suicides.

The other view believed legislation around the reporting of suicide was too restrictive, Judge MacLean said.

"[The view is] that there is an unfair constraint on the media to tell the stories and to talk about this whole worrying phenomena. I'm somewhere in the middle, tending toward more openness.

"I have often said - which mirrored what the South Australia state coroner said - it's time to pull our head out of the sand and actually face up to what's going on."

Particularly in cases of youth suicide, young people didn't read the paper or listen to the radio, he said. They got their information from their peers - texting, twitter, Facebook. And it was often misinformation.

"I'm sympathetic to the role of the media and say ‘let's tell the story. Let us get some facts out there. Let us remove some of the myths'. As long as they don't go overboard and sensationalise and glorify or offer simple solutions."

New Zealand media were not restricted on what they reported from overseas.

"And do we see a rash of suicides? No. Though it might not be as simple as that."

People probably didn't relate to a film star, or the nurse at the London hospital who killed herself after being taken in by some Sydney radio announcers' prank, Judge MacLean said.

Taranaki had a high male suicide rate.

Historically, male suicides outnumbered female ones by three to one, but that ratio was levelling out everywhere but Taranaki. There were 99 suicides in Taranaki in a six-year period.

"The highest number in any one month was 20 in 2009/10 and the lowest was 11 in 2011/12. You can't read too much into that. But only 10 of the 99 were female. That's 90 per cent male. You'd expect it to be 70 to 75 per cent."

Judge MacLean said no-one knew if this has to do with the high farming population.

"Perhaps the farming population has been under some stress."

There was the stereotype of the staunch farmer who bottled everything up, he said.

Yesterday morning Judge MacLean spoke to students at Spotswood College. He told the students they knew more about what was going on in their friends' lives than parents or any other adult.

"You can't just walk away from the problem. You have to look out for your mates."

Schools, like the media, had been nervous about discussing suicide, Judge MacLean said.

"There is this fear. We need to move past that. I talk about a gradual opening up of the discussion. In Australia last month they talked about shattering the silence."

Taranaki Daily News