Key to explore suicide laws

By Martin Johnston

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

An internet safety group has backed the Prime Minister's view that the public reporting of suicide is now virtually beyond control, because young people routinely discuss cases on websites.

John Key said yesterday that Parliament could "explore" the rules on suicide reporting because they were "somewhat defunct these days".

"The reality is that, particularly with youth suicide, very quickly social networking sites like Facebook and blog sites report that. There's huge engagement with young people around that information and so I don't think blocking the media from reporting is achieving an awful lot."

He said it would make sense to review the rules, but it was important to tread carefully because of the risk of copycat suicides.

The director of NetSafe, Martin Cocker, said Mr Key's assessment was "bang on".

Actor, director and Auckland Super City mayoral candidate Simon Prast, who recently lost a family member, has also called for an end to the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding suicide.

But an Auckland University mental health researcher, Associate Professor Brian McKenna, said that while the question of any copycat effect related to social networking sites had not yet been answered by research, the existing reporting guidelines should be retained for traditional media, where the effect was well established.

Mr Key was responding to chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean's suggestion that reporting restrictions be eased.

He wants to encourage more openness, public debate and responsible media coverage of suicide, in the hope that this might reduce the suicide rate.

Media are prohibited from publicising most details of a suspected suicide unless a coroner agrees. Even after an inquest finding of suicide, only that can be published, plus the person's name, address and occupation - unless the coroner decides releasing further details is unlikely to harm public safety.

As well, health authorities urge media to downplay suicide to avoid copycat cases. They ask media to avoid repetitive, high-profile reporting, especially if the person is a celebrity, and not to state the method of death.

Mr Cocker said social networking websites could not be regulated.

"We've got communities openly discussing suicides in a way that would be considered problematic but they are uncontrollable communities - Facebook communities, blogs, any form of social networking. The problem is that although we know that contagion is a problem we can't control it [suicide reporting] anyway.

Telling people they could not talk about suicide would be against their rights, he said.

"The lid is off. We can't put it back on. We can't control these new forms of communication, therefore we have to accept the impact they have and address the root problems."

The only obvious solution was to spend much more on anti-depression and anti-suicide initiatives.

- NZ Herald

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