Auckland District Court Judge Robert Ronayne died in January. According to a Coronial Services spokesperson the death is being investigated as a suspected suicide. There are no easy answers. Suicide and mental distress are nuanced and complex, and it is difficult, and possibly insensitive to try to explain or make sense of all the factors that lead to suicide.
Mental distress and suicide within the legal profession are not new. International research has shown that people working in the industry experience high rates of stress, anxiety and depression. According to a 2017 Vitality Works survey, one in three people reported they could improve their mental wellbeing. Why is mental distress and suicide so prevalent within the industry? The issue of stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness may be more pronounced in an industry that attracts competitive, ambitious or high-achieving individuals.
The structure and culture of the legal industry is well documented: exploitation of juniors, fear of speaking up or questioning authority, long hours and high stress are common. The nature of the job is adversarial, it may be isolating and one may be working daily with individuals and situations of great sadness and trauma.
The impact of being exposed to trauma over time is increasingly being recognised. An Australian crime reporter last year successfully claimed damages to the value of AU$180,000 for psychological injuries sustained while employed by the Age over a 10-year period. She argued the newspaper failed to uphold a duty of care, and she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of reporting on distressing crime, injury and death. The paper appealed the payout in October. The case is interesting as it could apply to so many professions and bucks the expectation to simply "harden up''.
Let's look at the legal framework around reporting or discussing suicide. Media coverage varies according to jurisdiction, but New Zealand is governed by the Coroner's Act, which prohibits publication of the method of a person's death, and any detail relating to location that suggests the method. A body corporate who publishes such information is committing an offence, and subject to a fine of up to $20,000. An individual might be subject to a fine not exceeding $5000.
Why are the rules so stringent? At any one moment one in 20 New Zealanders are vulnerable to suicide, and the risk dramatically increases when the method is easy to access or an exact location is named. Reckless reporting can also increase the risk of suicidal ideation or copy-cat behaviour. International studies suggest reporting about suicide deaths increases the rates of suicide and suicide attempts. According to US research, 195 additional deaths were linked to the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, and there was a huge spike in the number of Google searches of "how to die by suicide". The number of suicides recorded in April 2017 - a month after the show's release - was greater than any other single month in the previous five-year period. The research has since been challenged, which is made more complicated as the reasons for suicide contagion are many and varied.
A 2020 paper has since looked at suicides in Australia after media reports of the death of actor Robin Williams. There was an 11 per cent increase in suicides in the five-month period after Williams' death, largely men aged 30-64 and by people who died by the same method. Although only 6 per cent of articles in Australia included a detailed discussion of the suicide method that Williams used, people could source the information via international media.
It's not all bleak. A 1997 Australian study on the reporting of Kurt Cobain's suicide in a range of media found that rates of suicide among 15-24 year olds fell in the month after Cobain's death. Significantly, media coverage of Cobain's death was highly critical of his decision to suicide, and reporting emphasised the avoidable loss and significant impact on friends and family.
Responsible reporting of suicide and examining at least some of the circumstances such as those that are prevalent in the legal profession may be hard, but ought to be considered. It is not a question of censorship, but rather ethics.
Anumber of services area available. The Law Society's Practising Well initiative provides access to support and resources for lawyers in three key areas: healthy mind, healthy body, and healthy practice, for example. The programme is supported by Lifeline Aotearoa, Business Mentors NZ, Vitality Works and Vitae.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
- This column has been informed by the writer's experiences working in the journalism, legal, and mental health industries