Suicide should be one of society's biggest talking points, if only because this country has one of the world's most tragic youth suicide rates. Yet the subject is shrouded in a secrecy imposed by the Coroners Act.

Only the basic identification details, with the finding of self-inflicted death, can be made public directly by coroners. This stifling of publicity clearly has not worked.

The fact that the number of New Zealanders who commit suicide is 50 per higher than the road toll says as much. And that makes Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean's statement that suicides should be widely reported in order to save lives extremely welcome.

This is, of course, a matter of great sensitivity, not least in the interests of grieving family members. No one would suggest gratuitous details should be publicised.

But there is, as Judge MacLean suggested, room for "some gentle opening up of things". He mentioned, in particular, the value that would accrue from the publication of suicide figures and trends.

Judge MacLean said he tended to agree with the call made last month by the South Australian Coroner, Mark Johns, for suicides to be reported the same way as the road toll, with tables of how people were taking their lives.

This information might, said Mr Johns, make more people check for warning signs among family and friends.

His viewpoint prompted an intense debate across the Tasman.

Judge MacLean's comment should do the same here. Three main arguments will be levelled against his contention.

The first is that publicity will increase the risk of copycat behaviour. However, Robert Goldney, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Adelaide University, says only 2 to 3 per cent of suicides are of a copycat nature.

The methods used by people to kill themselves are already widely known and readily available. Further, it might be asked why this phenomenon would occur when that is not the case after murders.

A further defence of the current approach focuses on protecting the grieving family from the public glare. Yet many parents are only too ready to confront their loss and talk about it as they search for answers.

Finally, it is apparent that many opponents of change fret about the media's response. Their fears are vastly overstated.

Family grief would always be taken into account. And as with, say, cases of rape, the media would not go into unwarranted detail.

Nor would they report in a manner that romanticised or trivialised the act. Reporting would focus on the deaths of people of note or other factors that made a suicide of public interest. Guidelines for care in reporting suicide are already available.

All this may not be enough to change the minds of many health bureaucrats. They have been strongly opposed to change.

Their thinking has also carried the day in Parliament. Four years ago, a call to lift restrictions on the reporting of suicide was rejected by a select committee.

Judge MacLean's intervention should trigger a rethink. Suicide should be confronted and discussed openly and frankly.

Greater transparency would surely prompt better understanding and, as Mr Johns suggests, make people aware of the danger signs and how best to help suicidal people and manage their problems. It could also deter those thinking of taking their own lives.

The publicity given to the road toll has been an undoubted factor in its decline from the peaks of the early 1970s. By way of contrast, sweeping matters under the carpet or making a subject taboo have, time after time, proved to be counterproductive.

This country's appalling suicide rate is just one example. At some time, the shroud will have to be lifted.