'Suicide is no longer taboo'

Young people get information from their peers on Facebook, Twitter, texting ... 'and often that information is wrong'

MEGAN MILLER
Last updated 05:00 04/07/2012
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/ Fairfax Media NZ

Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean shares his thoughts on the media's handling of suicide reporting and on how opening up public discussion could impact the issue of suicide in New Zealand.

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New Zealand's chief coroner hopes the information that can be learned from some of the country's approximately 550 suicide deaths each year could ultimately help to cut that number in half.

Since becoming New Zealand's first chief coroner in February 2007, Judge Neil MacLean has spoken out in favour of opening up discussion and reporting of suicide.

It's a controversial position and one that some health officials fear will actually increase the number of deaths by encouraging copycat suicides or placing vulnerable individuals in the media spotlight.

But that fear had contributed to a sense that all discussion of suicide is off limits, and it had not helped lower New Zealand's high suicide rate, Judge MacLean said.

"Not talking about it, treating it as a taboo topic, hasn't made any difference at all."

He believes that the mainstream media's handling of suicide reporting is not to blame for the phenomenon of "copycat" or "cluster" suicides, which most frequently happens in young people.

"We know that, particularly for young people, where they get their information from is not from the front page ... or from TV or radio. They get it from their peers on Facebook, Twitter, texting ... and often that information is wrong."

There are 16 coroners throughout New Zealand, and each has control over the information that is released about suicides that take place within their district.

Under the most widely-accepted interpretation of the Coroners Act, journalists can report that a death was ruled a suicide once a coroner has made that determination. But they are otherwise restricted to reporting the details that the coroner decides to release in each case. That can be as little as a deceased's name, address and occupation.

The Coroners Act also provides coroners with the power to restrict public – and media – access to suicide inquests, effectively meaning they can be held in secret.

Judge MacLean said he was now asking coroners to consider whether publication of information about individual suicide cases might do some public good.

"I'm saying to coroners, have a look at it and think about whether in this case, it would do more good than harm to allow either the full findings to be published or more of it than just the name and the finding of suicide," he said.

The information learned from these cases could help mental health professionals gain a better understanding of who is at risk.

It could also help to educate Kiwis about warning signs that a friend or family member might be struggling, he said.

"If it means that friends, relatives and mentors are more alert to the signals, hopefully they can help prevent someone from tipping over from thinking about [suicide] to actually doing it."

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- The Timaru Herald

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