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Media sensation can abet suicides

The Law Commission recently presented a report to Parliament concerning suicide reporting by the media.

Fearing that the Coroner’s Act 2006 was not very clear and might not adequately protect the public and the coronial process, the Commission has recommended that, except in rare cases approved by the Chief Coroner, the media could report suicide deaths as ‘suspected suicides’ but not on the method of the suicide.

Protect the public from what, you may ask?

The answer is: From copycat suicides.

Precipitating behaviour

Commission President Sir Grant Hammond cited numerous studies that have shown a link between media reporting on the details of a suicide and an adverse effect on vulnerable populations.

“While there are some differences between them, they show widespread agreement that media depictions of suicide may precipitate suicidal behaviour in vulnerable people. In particular, they show that vulnerable people may be susceptible to descriptions of the method of suicide.”

He also pointed out that detailed suicide reporting might lead to “sensationalising, normalising or glamorising suicide,” which may lead to copycat suicides.

Parliament has welcomed the Commission’s recommendations with Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne commending the Commission for balancing “the benefits that sensitive discussions of suicide can have with the risks of encouraging copycat behaviour.”

Mental health issues affect a huge number of New Zealanders.

The last thing vulnerable members of the public need is to see suicide extensively covered by the media as an object of public fascination, sending unhelpful cultural cues that it is a viable option.

Unwanted influence

The Law Commission and Government ministers see the vast power and sway that learning the details of a suicide death can have on people who may be depressed, lonely, sick, or feeling hopeless and trapped by life.

If media coverage can have such impact, what about Parliamentary action? What if suicide were normalised by the passage of a Bill that legalised assisted suicide? What if, in the course of the discussion and debate that would necessarily accompany the passage of said Bill, suicide was sensationalised and glamorised in blogs, on TV, and in newspapers as advocates for the legislation wrote emotively about sick relatives and suicide pioneers who took death into their own hands?

What cues would these things send to vulnerable populations? Would the risk of copycat behaviour be ok because it was legal and accepted, or would we still want to protect people from following that course?

Euthanasia killed

Labour MP Maryan Street has removed her assisted-suicide and euthanasia Private Member’s Bill from the Parliamentary ballot box and it is unlikely that a similar bill will rear its head prior to the ensuing general election.

But after September 20, we can and should expect to see the issue arise again.

When it does, we should remember the Law Commission’s findings and recommendations and consider what cues we want to be sending to the public about suicide as a way out.

Jane Silloway Smith is Research Manager at Maxim Institute based in Auckland

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