In November 1998, a young Chinese woman killed herself by making a particular type of fire in her small high-rise flat in Hong Kong. She apparently learnt how to do this by watching a Japanese film and using her chemical engineering background.

This was the only way that she would have known what to do as no one had used this method in Hong Kong before. The death and the method of death received a blaze of media coverage.

In the next three months there were 22 more deaths by this method. By 2001 it had become the second most common method of committing suicide and had also spread to China and Taiwan. The media can exert a powerful influence over suicidal behaviour.

The phrase "conspiracy of silence" is often used to describe restrictions on what the media reports on suicide. There is no conspiracy and there is no silence.

There is a law and there is evidence. The law is the Coroners Act, which states in Section 71 that when a case is before a coroner the media can report only the name, address and occupation of the deceased, and that the death was self-inflicted. After the inquest has been completed these restrictions may still apply.

The act also specifies potential restrictions on reporting for other deaths, not just suicides. Coroners' courts are courts of law and have restrictions on reporting for the same reason that other courts do, so as not to prejudice the legal process within the court.

The law is also in place to protect the families of the deceased from public speculation about how the person has died. And just as in the coroners' courts, the media can protest against any restrictions on reporting, such as suppression orders.

Secondly, there is evidence. The evidence is that if the media report the details of the cause of death for individuals then this does lead to copycat suicides. The more dramatic the headlines and the more prominent the person the more powerful the effect. The Hong Kong story of suicides was just one example of this. Another example is from Vienna, where in the mid-1980s the media provided extensive and dramatic coverage of suicides of people jumping in front of trains. In 1987 a voluntary code of media reporting was introduced.

In the first six months after the introduction of this code the number of suicides fell and the number of attempted suicides by jumping in front of a train reduced by 80 per cent. For this reason, all countries that have a suicide-prevention strategy include something about media guidelines on reporting individual suicides.

Naturally the media want to tell simple, powerful stories of tragic deaths but this has to be balanced against the likelihood of causing more suicides.

When someone dies from suicide we always ask why. The answers are complex and are difficult to fit into a few hundred words of a news article.

The temptation is to make the story dramatic - details of how the person's life ended - and simple, a failed relationship, for example. However, the vast majority of people who have relationship breakdowns do not become suicidal.

What seems to make a difference is the potent mix of hopelessness, depression and loss. The mental illness story of suicide rarely gets reported in stories of individuals' suicides and yet there is an opportunity here for the media to promote help-seeking and awareness about the management of depression.

As a clinician and researcher who deals with suicidal people every day, I do not want silence on this issue. The number of people who die by suicide each year is only slightly less than the number who die from breast cancer each year.

Yet there is no equivalent to the pink ribbon campaign for suicide, where the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation raises more than $1 million annually with the help of celebrity and media endorsement. The same celebrities and media should not be afraid to come forward and support fundraising for suicide prevention.

I want the media to report on suicide and the complex reasons behind it. We should be talking about suicide and mental health.

I do not want the media reporting on the details of how particular individuals have committed suicide as this will lead to more deaths.

The evidence on this is clear.

Dr Simon Hatcher, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, is a senior lecturer in psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at the University of of Auckland, s.hatcher@auckland.ac.nz