News media in other free countries would be amazed at the restrictions on reporting deaths in New Zealand by suicide. For a long time it has been against the law to even call such a death by its name until after an inquest, usually months later, and even then only if the coroner permits. The most we may legally report at the time of the death is there are "no suspicious circumstances" or "police are not looking for anyone else". Readers no doubt draw the right conclusion; circumlocution soon loses its point.
Not before time, Parliament is considering a bill to relax the restriction. If it is passed, it will become lawful to refer to a "suspected suicide" before an inquest is held. But in other ways the law is being tightened and one of them would restrict references to historical and overseas suicides. When a suicide bombing occurs overseas it may be illegal to report it in this country, according to Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler's reading of the bill as it has emerged from a select committee.
His commentary on it, which we published last week, is disturbing. "If Parliament doesn't change the bill," he wrote, "then news stories about suicide bombings will be criminal. Any person who wants to follow the law and report on suicide bombings or mention details of historic suicides like the deaths of the September 11 hijackers will have to seek an exemption from the chief coroner."
This is plainly impractical. As Mr Edgeler wrote, "If everyone actually followed this law, the chief coroner would be full-time pre-approving tweets and Facebook posts."
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Even if he issued a blanket exemption for every suicide in the news from overseas, he would be busy - and for what purpose?
Suicide reporting restrictions in New Zealand have been imposed at the request of therapists in the field who can produce figures showing the incidence of suicide rises when a case is reported. They say people prone to suicide are vulnerable to the influence of reports of others taking their own life. Young people in particular are prone, especially if the report involves a star or is at risk of "glamorising" suicide in a susceptible mind.
These have been compelling concerns for most media outlets in New Zealand, which have been consulted by the Ministry of Health and have generally agreed to the reporting restrictions. New Zealand has the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world and, while the rate does not appear to have been reduced by the reporting restrictions, anything that might help is worth doing.
These days, though, it must be wondered whether the restrictions still serve a purpose. Social media is unlikely to observe them. Not many young people will be aware of the law and their social media networks will be conveying the news to the vulnerable. In these circumstances, it may perhaps be healthier to let mass media carry the news in a restrained and responsible way. Suppression is seldom the best way to deal with anything. It seems it is doing nothing to reduce suicide.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.