Coroner at odds with ministry on suicide

By Martin Johnston

Neil Maclean. Photo / APN
Neil Maclean. Photo / APN

The Chief Coroner wants restrictions eased on the reporting of suicides, a suggestion that pits him against the Ministry of Health's position for the past decade.

Judge Neil MacLean spoke out after the state coroner in South Australia, Mark Johns, said he wanted the media to stop worrying about copycat suicides and start reporting the truth about his country's high rate of suicide.

Before a coronial inquest, New Zealand media are banned from reporting "the manner in which a death occurred" if it is a suspected suicide - unless a coroner gives consent.

Even after a coroner concludes that a death is suicide, only the finding of suicide and the person's name, address and occupation can be reported, unless the coroner decides releasing further details is unlikely to harm public safety.

The Ministry of Health also urges media to be cautious with suicide stories, downplaying them, because of the established risk that they can lead to more deaths.

The ministry particularly discourages reporting of suicide methods and frequent or repetitive reporting of suicide - especially when the dead person is a celebrity.

"Reporting a method of suicide may lead to imitative or 'copycat' suicide attempts using that method," says its suicide prevention action plan.

"Frequent or repetitive reporting of suicide may encourage the public perception that suicide is a reasonable, understandable and common approach to solving life difficulties."

Yesterday, Judge MacLean said he wanted to encourage more openness, public debate and media coverage of the suicide rate - there are on average 10 suicides every week in New Zealand - because this might reduce the number. But he recognised the debate would start with more-detailed reporting of individual suicide cases.

"I tend towards the view that we are struggling with a law which says a coroner must not authorise publication of any particular of a death until being satisfied it would do no harm to the public, whatever that means."

He said media reports on suicide were generally responsible, although he had expressed his "disquiet" over photographs of a suicide location and interviews published and broadcast before the case reached the coroner.

He was not advocating publishing comprehensive details. "The answer lies somewhere in between, probably you can gently open things up a bit, you need to start the debate going, but there's a limit to how far you can go."

Psychiatrist Professor Peter Ellis, of Otago University at Wellington, said he supported the ministry's position on media reporting of suicide.

The ministry's deputy director of mental health, Dr Charles Hornabrook, said a debate would be useful on a small increase in the detail permitted to be reported after a suicide inquest finding.

CALL 'A WONDERFUL RELIEF'

Waihi mum Heather Powell last night described Judge Neil MacLean's call as "a wonderful relief", provided the reporting of suicide was covered sensibly.

Her son Michael was just 15 when he killed himself in April last year.

At an inquest in January, Mrs Powell and her husband, David, told coroner Peter Ryan they believed Michael killed himself after misinterpreting text messages between him and two girls, aged 13 and 14.

"We do have to face up to the fact that we do have a real problem here in New Zealand," Mrs Powell said.

Suicide needed to be more openly discussed, so young people were aware of the devastating effects of rash actions.

"As a mother, I can see that Michael didn't think through the consequences. It was the moment in time that took Michael's life, as a consequence of the things that were happening."

The problem with the current situation was that experts were divided on the best way to deal with the reporting of suicide, and all people affected by the issue needed to be able discuss it in the open.

"We have to acknowledge we have this problem, which we have to prevent."

- NZ Herald

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