I’ve got my own theories about the high rate of suicide in New Zealand (and most of the western world). To my mind we need to address the alienation, the atomisation and the anomie of modern life if we want to get to the roots of the problem. In addition I find it hard to believe that at some level we don’t all feel the ecocide rending the planet. We are part of the fabric of life, despite the illusion of separation, and cannot be mentally healthy while we continue to wreak destruction on ourselves.
Such thinking was not, I suspect, behind the Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean’s call for more media reporting of suicide. He pointed out that while the number of people dying from suicide is 50 percent higher than the road toll, suicide receives comparatively little attention. In this he is correct. The money spent on reducing the road toll is considerable, with public media campaigns and strong enforcement around drink driving and speeding. Suicide prevention is small fry in comparison.
It is hard to understand why this is so. Suicide is not a new problem. Perhaps there is an assumption that it is primarily a youth problem. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but young people only draw significant political attention and ministry resources when we can blame them for shit. There has been far more media time, mental energy and government money spent on boy racers than ever was directed at suicide prevention.
An indication of our collective lack of interest is the fact that an international expert on suicide prevention, Annette Beautrais, left the country just a year and a half ago because of what a colleague described as a lack of support and recognition from the NZ Ministry of Health. Even more telling, the Associate Minister of Health with responsibility for the area, Peter Dunne, didn’t seem to be aware of this.
The media, of course, will blame the politicians for the lack of reporting. The Coroners Act does restrict reporting of suicide to some degree, but this is a bit of a cop-out. The Coroners Act says that if a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no one can make public anything other than the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned and the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted. Unless you have the coroner’s permission. They can only give that permission if it is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.
Given the contested evidence about the effect of media reporting, this seems a good thing. It is a cautious approach that leaves the door open if the evidence stacks up against the notion of ‘copy cat’ suicides. In addition it is the Chief Justice who has responsibility to draw up guidelines for coroners about what may or may not be detrimental.
Strangely you’d never guess this from Judge MacLeans comments. I agree that more reporting is probably a good idea, but it is in his hands to allow this to happen.
Secondly, the restrictions are only around the particulars of specific deaths. There is absolutely nothing to stop the media covering the broader issue of suicide such as trends, research and causes. In particular more coverage of how to spot the warning signs and what to do about it if you do would be helpful. In fact the extensive coverage of suicide in The Press this month is a good example of just what can be done under the current law.
There are many laws that do need to change in this country but this is probably not one of them. Let’s see what we can do with what we have before we start demanding another act of parliament.