12 Aug 2010

Chief coroner calls for more awareness of suicide rate

9:14 pm on 12 August 2010

For the first time, the Chief Coroner has released data showing the methods used by people to commit suicide.

Judge Neil MacLean says people should be made more aware of the extent of suicide in New Zealand, which kills more people than traffic accidents.

Details released by him show self-inflicted deaths average about 540 each year and reveal the different methods used. The road toll in New Zealand last year was 390.

But his actions have sparked controversy, with a suicide prevention group saying knowing too much about how people kill themselves is harmful to family and friends and could lead more people taking their own lives.

The director of Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand, Merryn Stathan, says she is uncomfortable with the release of detailed information about how people take their own lives.

Judge MacLean says reporting too much detail is not always harmful, and families actually need more information to help prevent suicide in the first place.

The judge says he wants to open up debate about suicide reporting and prevention and told told Morning Report he plans to meet with media representatives to discuss how responsible reporting could cut the rate while avoiding copycat deaths.

The judge says it is his job to educate people about public health issues and believes more public awareness will help dispel myths and misunderstandings around suicides.

Relationship problems and breakdowns seem to be the most common cause of suicide and this could be discussed in the same way as risk factors for traffic accidents, he says.

Publishing of information supported

Senior media figures say details of suicide should be reported - as long as the reporting is done in a responsible way.

To prevent copycat suicides and protect grieving families, a coroner has to give his consent if the media want to publish details other than the name, age and occupation of the dead person.

Following Judge MacLean's release of details on Thursday, The Press in Christchurch chose to publish the methods people use to take their own lives.

Editor Andrew Holden says it ensured the figures were presented responsibly and were not on the front page.

The head of Canterbury University's school of social and political sciences, Jim Tully, says some editors want the freedom to report the small number of cases that do have news value.