A day I will never forget was two years ago this May.

It was early winter but the sky was clear and the sun shone warmly like a Bay summer. In the newsroom we all had the morning off - a thing unheard of that we would all go out together leaving just one person manning the phones. It was a special occasion. We were invited to a celebration by our colleague Graham Skellern for his 30-year-old-son Matt.

In dresses and suits, we went in a convoy of cars to Graham's house on the Matapihi peninsula. It was a remote location, on the water's edge. Rows of cars teamed on to the adjacent field. I remember giggling as we made our way to the house, as my heels kept getting stuck in the grass. My friend was having the same problem and said we should have worn heel clips like you do at weddings.

When we reached the venue, the setting was stunning. The sun glistened across the harbour, a marquee beckoned with food and drinks, and chairs awaited us with expansive views to the ocean. The hum, chatter and laughter grew as the Tauranga crowd gathered in force.


My friend mentioned this day recently. "Remember we met him at Matt's wedding." Then her hand flew to her mouth in horror.

Because it wasn't Matt's wedding. It was his funeral.

We sat around in the idyllic setting, with Matt in an open casket. Graham said it was how he had imagined celebrating his son's wedding there. That he had never believed the marquee would house mourners at his funeral.

One by one, his friends and family got up to speak about him. He was a great sportsman, a top planning graduate. He was doing important things in the community, including a thesis on surf break protection (since published by Auckland and Lincoln universities and featured on the Surf Protection Society website).

His sister Emma sat by him, and played the guitar and sang In the Arms of an Angel. His mother Philippa stroked his hair. He was bipolar. At the end, Emma got up and urged the crowd to "do something" about understanding and acknowledging mental health.

I never met Matt. But I will never forget him.

Last week, the coroner's office made its ruling on his death. It was suicide.

Following the funeral, the Skellern family established the Matt Skellern Bipolar Trust to promote greater awareness of the condition and to develop better support systems, including using the knowledge and experience of people who have learned to live with bipolar and other forms of mental health (peer support).

If we can start to investigate this, to better understand mental illness, to recognise signs and start conversations about it, then maybe lives can be saved.

Colin and Marianne Milne are two other friends of mine. I was invited to their son's funeral a year earlier, in July 2011. I did not go but my partner did. Brad Milne was also 30 years old. At his funeral, people spoke of an exceptional man and proud father. He was loved by fiancee Sarah and two young sons, Cole, then 2, and Mason, then just 4 months old. Brad had battled depression for many years.

Two years after his death, in May last year, the coroner ruled Brad's death as suicide. In September, that coroner, Dr Wallace Bain, referred Brad's death, and that of another Tauranga man, 18-year-old Brendan Russell, to the Law Commission because the two cases highlighted "the need for proper support systems in and around people who are feeling suicidal and their loved ones. That is coming through time and again."

Colin and Marianne Milne, their son Lance with a picture of son/brother Brad Milne and his son Cole.
Colin and Marianne Milne, their son Lance with a picture of son/brother Brad Milne and his son Cole.

Dr Bain was prompted to make this recommendation to tackle "alarming" statistics that were twice this country's accident rate.

Ministry of Justice coroners court figures from June 2012 to June 2013 show 541 New Zealanders committed suicide. That was six fewer than the previous year but still the average had remained stubbornly stable since 2007.

New Zealand ranks mid-range against other OECD countries for male suicides but in the top third for females.

Youth suicide rates also rank highly, with males fourth highest and females second highest in the developed world.

In 2010, rural New Zealanders were 43 per cent more likely to commit suicide than urban New Zealanders, according to Federated Farmers mental health spokeswoman Jeanette Maxwell. In addition to this, male suicide rates have been around 67 per cent higher in rural areas, compared with men living in urban centres. This prompted initiatives such as the Federated Farmers Life's a Bitch Campaign. John Kirwan's depression.org site will have a special section tailored for rural communities.

I never met Matt. But I will never forget him.

Campaigns to raise awareness of the link between mental illness and suicide are essential. People I know have often said to me: why don't you journalists write more about suicide? They ask: why don't you write about it when it is such a massive problem? More Kiwis die by their own hand than they do on the roads, but you don't see the headlines. Families impacted by suicide often do not get the same community support as with other sudden deaths. People don't know what to say, so mostly they say nothing.

It is true that suicide remains a "taboo". Many people do not realise that media laws surrounding suicide strictly control the way suicide is reported, the reasons being to protect anyone vulnerable.

 Coroner, Dr Wallace Bain
Coroner, Dr Wallace Bain

To date, the media is limited to report on "sudden deaths" and "no suspicious circumstances" when reporting that someone has died through self-inflicted causes. No other country has such strict limitations. In April, the Law Commission presented a report to Parliament concerning suicide reporting by the media. Concluding that the current Coroner's Act 2006 was not clear, and might not adequately protect either the public or the coronial process, the commission recommended that, except in rare cases approved by the chief coroner, the media could report suicide deaths as "suspected suicides" but that they should not report on the method.

On May 22, Courts Minister Chester Borrows and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced that the Government had agreed to the recommendations in the Law Commission's recent report on suicide reporting. "The proposals are based on sound evidence and would make the law clearer and easier to follow. These changes, alongside the activity already under way as part of the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2013-16, will help everyone move toward safe, responsible discussions around suicide."

Mr Borrows plans to introduce a Coroners Amendment Bill in the coming months, which will implement changes identified in the Government's recent review of the Coroners Act 2006.

This is good news.

Suicide has been a taboo subject in New Zealand for too long. Suppression can be dangerous. It has not worked to prevent suicides. On the contrary, the suicide rate is alarming.

Media should be allowed, by law, to responsibly tell the truth. But this is not about a victory for the media. It is about families left devastated by grief, in a frustrating search for answers. It is not the aim of media to sensationalise or glamorise a person taking their own life. But rather that more reporting leads to more awareness and discussion about just why a person would make a choice to take their own life.

If we can start to investigate this, to better understand mental illness, to recognise signs and start conversations about it, then maybe lives can be saved.

It is time to talk about suicide.

Where to get help
Youth services: (06) 3555 906.
Youthline: 0800 376 633.
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays).
What's up: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight).
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24 hours).
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155.
Age Concern: (04) 801 9338