Suicide and the Media

April 2nd, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Spent most of Thursday at a forum on and the co-chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman (PM’s Chief Science Advisor) and the Chief Coroner. A dozen or so to researchers were there, along with various people, and also various government people. 37 people in total.

The background to the forum was last year a set of new guidelines for the media in reporting of suicides was formulated. Some of the health professionals felt that they didn’t cover the science adequately, so hence the forum was to allow an exchange of views.

There was at times some fairly heated exchanges, but most of the time it was just interesting presentations and discussions. Some stats on suicide:

  • Largest class of death by external causes in NZ – 540 annually
  • Male suicide rates three times female rate (however more females attempt suicide)
  • Youth suicide peaked in 1995, however the female youth rate is at the  highest since 1999
  • In a natural disaster, suicide rates stay fairly constant or decline – the increased stress compensated for by the increased sense of belonging and community. However in the long-term they then increase 3 – 5 years afterwards

Globally there are at least 100,000 suicides a year.

There was a discussion on S71 of the Coroners Act:

No person may, without a coroner’s authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and no inquiry into the death has been completed.

It is quite clear that this means one can not report details around a suicide. For example you can not say “xxx killed himself by taking a drug overdose” or  even worse “xxx killed himself by tying a rope around the beam in his bedroom, stepping up on a chair, and kicking the chair away to hang himself”.

There is strong evidence that the reporting of such details can sometimes lead to copycat deaths.

However what is not clear is whether S71 means the media can’t report the fact a death appeared to be suicide, without any details of the suicide. Can you say “xxx killed himself”? Some in the media say you can, some health professionals say even that can be harmful, and the Coroner prefers media indicate suicide by using phrases such as “There are no suspicious circumstances” or “No one is being sought in connection with the death”.

On a couple of occassions I have reported the suicide of a friend, and called it suicide. I think in an interactive medium, being coy is likely to lead to speculation, which can be unhelpful. I also made the point to the forum than now when most young people die, they have a Facebook page and their friends all go there to talk about what happened, how they are feeling etc – and 14 years olds are not too worried about S71 of the Coroners Act.

Having said that, there is some risk around the quite natural tendency to mourn someone who has killed themselves. If their Facebook page becomes a shrine to them, that can encourage other vulnerable youth to think that suicide is a good thing, as it will get people talking about how much they will miss you and what a good guy or girl you were.  So one of the challenges is that when someone kills themselves, to try and encourage comments on their social media sites to not unduly glorify them.

People may be interested in some of the don’ts in the media guidelines. They include:

  • Don’t simplify the cause of death. They are normally complex.
  • Don’t specify in detail the method or location
  • Don’t just focus on the person’s positive characteristics
  • Don’t encourage over simplification of the death by contributing it to a single cause
  • Don’t blame suicide on texting or Facebook etc.
  • Don’t use phrases such as “X successfully killed himself”
Talking of Facebook, one of the participants had a really good novel idea. He said that rather than see social media as a liability, see it as an opportunity. He proposed that agreement be sought from social media companies that if a list of their users who had killed themselves were given to them, they provide the deceased’s full  data history to researchers.
Imagine the power of that data. At present data is collected from indirect sources such as family and friends.  Imagine being able to look at if there are any significant common patterns amongst those who kill themselves, such as what times they were writing, how often a day they updated, how many friends they had, what sort of words or phrases in common etc etc. This could be very important data in identifying people at a high risk of suicide.
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24 Responses to “Suicide and the Media”

  1. Adolf Fiinkensein (2,663 comments) says:

    Male suicide rates three times female rate (however more females attempt suicide)

    Here’s a golden opportunity for the Dept of Women’s Affairs to do something useful. More tuition is needed to bring the level of achievement of women in this field up to that of men.

    Close the gap, I say. Close the gap.

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  2. mikenmild (8,721 comments) says:

    Closing that gap could also mean a modest improvement in the current disparity of life expectancy for men versus women…

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  3. chiz (1,090 comments) says:

    S71 says that without authority you can’t make public the details of someone’s death if it looks like it might be suicide and no inquiry into it has been completed. That presumably means that once the coroner has finished an inquiry people are then free to make the details public. So you can report the details.

    [DPF: No as then S72 applies!]

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  4. Jimbob (639 comments) says:

    Causes of suicide should be researched. looking back in time, there should be a wealth of data on this. Like the spike in suicides in one section of the community as the result of Government policy. Back in the 1980′s should be a good start.

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  5. Bob (442 comments) says:

    One advantage in publicising suicides is to alert people especially family members that someone in their midst might be contemplating suicide. They can become aware of the significance of depression, comments and even talk of death which might indicate potential suicide. Help can be sought in time.

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  6. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    I have only been in the Coroners Court once, on an HSE prosecution following the death of an oil rig worker. They always do the suicides first…it is incredibly sad. I remember one case where the poor sod was so desparate that he used two methods to make absolutely sure… a pipe to bring exhaust gas into the car, and while he was waiting for that to work, he took a bottle of pills washed down with bourbon.

    People say it is a selfish way to act, but I feel huge compassion for anyone who got in such a hole that they saw that as the only way out of their abject misery.

    And then the terrible hanging cases…people who have no idea that unless you get the “drop” long enough it can take a bloody long time to die….

    My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a loved one this way…

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  7. mikenmild (8,721 comments) says:

    Well said David. It is a desperately sad topic, but one that needs airing in the right way. I feel very proud that we have some kiwis like John Kirwan who will stand up publicly to share their experience in the hope that it will make a difference to others who may be suffering.

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  8. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    If you ever look at old newspapers…like from the 1920′s…there will be stories about men (it was always men) who checked into some cheap hotel and cut their throat with a straight razor…. I have been down in a hole myself, but never anywhere near the despair that would lead a person to do away with themselves like that…

    A close friend of mine hanged himself…sadly for me, I know enough about hanging to know how long it must have taken…it still bothers me, and it’s more than ten years ago…

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  9. Nostalgia-NZ (4,671 comments) says:

    Seems silly to presume that the public don’t understand, ‘no suspicious circumstances’ or ‘that no one else is being looked for’ as being any different to the use of the word ‘suicide.’ Whatever the ‘protection’ that is meant to be being offered by not using the word suicide seems outdated now and probably came from a time when, as it is now, stigma was attached to suicide, or at least interested heightened, by those that might have known the deceased or their family.

    I can see how many families would not view the details of a suicidee’s death, or on line habits, as helpful to being shared. There are likely to be factors for example of their own possible feelings of guilt, that would make them reluctant to have it shared with researchers. But with the consent of next of kin it could indeed help profiling but I still wouldn’t be optimistic that it might change suicide rates.

    As for those on line ‘shrines’ visited by friends, the curious, or indeed those that might be suicidal, or possibly able to be influenced at a time of depression. If they are set up in a way which accidentally, or deliberately allows others to view ‘the way out’ the deceased chose, they might see potential reasons to justify their own suicides. Particularly if it seemed that some of those that may have suicided appeared to have less reason to die than the visitor or were more ‘liberated’ and ‘up beat with their views. I don’t know how you encourage or monitor comments to ‘not unduly gloriify’ the dead because it seems to impossible to determine what might motivate a depressed person to suicide.

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  10. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    Nostalgia” good post.

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  11. rolla_fxgt (311 comments) says:

    I think perhaps the Coroners Act does need to be updated around the suicide. As someone who has lost some people I have known to suicide, including one particularly sad case when I was at school, which arguably could have been said to be a blessing for the individual given his illness and state of health at the time, but still it shook me at the time. It was awkward for the school, as his close friends had been told by the parents that it was suicide, yet due to the Coroners act, the school could only tell us he had passed, and there was help available if we needed it. Yet a few months later when another student died after choking on something, we were told how they died. Even teenagers can figure out what the differences mean. The act is a little outdated in its thinking that if we don’t talk about it, then its less likely to happen at all.
    I agree that the way in which it was done should be blocked from publication (but even then it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to top yourself if you really want to do it), but being honest with ourselves and each other about how someone died, is in my opinion part of the solution, not a problem. I think it will also remove some of the stigmatism from mental illness, if we are more aware of people committing suicide, then I think we are more likely to look out for it, and keep in touch with those we know are suffering from mental illness.

    We don’t not report on murder, and how that occured because it might encourage people to become murders, so why the stange limit on suicide.

    As someone who has suffered from depression, and attempted (and looking at it now thankfully) failed at suicide, it would for me have made it easier to talk to people about how I was feeling, rather than feeling like suicide was a total social taboo, and perhaps I would never of gotten to the point of contemplating suicide in the first place. And frankly if I had succeeded I would have found it a bit odd if my death hadn’t been acknowledged as a suicide I would have found it extremely odd.

    In the age of social media, its even more silly to have such restrictions in the Coroners act, as someone in my late 20′s most of the people of my age group and younger that I socialise with see facebook and twitter etc, as not much different to conversation. If you take that view, then you have to say if someone was prosecuted for a post on facebook saying x committed suicide the other day, then you’d also have to prosecute people, including family members who at funerals mentioned or spoke of that person x was sadly taken by their own hands. Clearly that’s just cruel and unjust.

    The law is never going to be ahead of technology, but it could at least stay in the same decade.

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  12. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    rolla: at the risk of sounding like a SNAG (does that acronym still mean anything these days??) I am glad you did not succeed…and you make sound very good points…It’s a bloody complex issue…I am not usually short of an opinion on just about anything, but on this issue…I am buggered if I know….

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  13. mikenmild (8,721 comments) says:

    Rolla – I appreciate you talking about your experience. I think if more people did, a la JK, it would definitely help remove some of the stigma around mental health issues.

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  14. pq (728 comments) says:

    I can almost imagine how meaningless the forum on suicide would be.
    Statistics would have been useful if Farrar had them, age groups, and proper circumstances.
    Perhaps farr5ar you were just referring to out religious dismissal , and refusal of reality.
    Farrar please research more deeply and don’t just print off drivel meaningless Sunday news articles.

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  15. burt (7,083 comments) says:

    David Garrett

    SNAG… You might be best described as a Caring Understanding Nurturing Type. ;-) (Nothing personal mate … just couldn’t resist the chance to use that)

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  16. burt (7,083 comments) says:

    DPF

    How long have these restrictions been in place ?

    I appreciate they are in The Coroners ACT 2006, but have they been around for long before that ?

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  17. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    burt: Oh!!!! I am so wounded that an anonymous commenter would describe me so…to quote Dr Smith “Oh..the pain…the pain…”

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  18. noskire (796 comments) says:

    As someone who has attempted suicide on three seperate times over a period of 10 years, unfortunately I don’t really have an answer, I’m probabably even more pissed that I failed at those previous attempts. – deperession and anxiety can seriously affect your perception on life. It’s a shit of a thing to live with. I’ve had times when I couldn’t answer the phone or even open the door to a visitor, yet still manage to run and grow a company with $4M turnover.

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  19. Nookin (2,886 comments) says:

    Burt
    It’s been around a while. The 1951 Act contaied the following section

    21. (1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, where
    it appears to the Coroner at the commencement or in
    the course of an inquest that the circumstances are such
    that it appears possible that death may have been self
    inflicted, he may direct that no report, or no further
    report, of the proceedings shall be published until after
    he has made his finding.
    (2) Where the Coroner finds that the death was self
    inflicted, no report of the proceedings of the inquest shall,
    without the authority of the Coroner, be published other
    than the name, address, and occupation of the deceased
    person, the fact that an inquest has been held, and that
    the Coroner has found that the death was self inflicted.

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  20. Nostalgia-NZ (4,671 comments) says:

    I don’t think there are particular reasons to assume depression or mental illness features in all suicides, trying to do so seems to be the need to transverse the personal feelings and questions of those left alive to wonder ‘what they could have done’ or how one so ‘young’ or ‘loved’ might decide to go the way none, of we, the living know.

    There seem to be questions about the sanctity, and breadth of life, regret, aspiration, short comings, pain, content, and focus that might walk hand in hand in those final footsteps others take.

    No disrespect to anyone intended.

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  21. David Garrett (5,119 comments) says:

    noskire: And I am very glad you are still here too mate…what do they say? ” a life not well examined…” or summat…

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  22. OP (1 comment) says:

    “He proposed that agreement be sought from social media companies that if a list of their users who had killed themselves were given to them, they provide the deceased’s full data history to researchers.”

    That’s headed towards tricky territories in research ethics. One would most likely need agreement from beyond just social media companies there? It may be a relationship issue within the immediate family that’s behind a suicide, in which case you could imagine such family members withholding consent. Of course, approval is unlikely to come from the individual (before or after) for obvious reasons!

    Thanks to David and all commentors for sharing considered dialogue on this matter..

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  23. david (2,482 comments) says:

    our son suicided at age 21. As part of our search for a reason (which never ceases to haunt your thoughts daily), we tried to get access to his hotmail account in the faint hope that he might have left a clue in his emails to unknown friends. Microsoft both here and in US were totally obstructionist and insisted that we would need a court order. We started getting the paperwork underway only to discover that the account had been deleted because it had not been used for 6 months. Bastards

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  24. Alan Wilkinson (1,798 comments) says:

    OP, david. The law has yet to catch up with the internet in many ways, not least being your online identity, access rights and records. I see no reason why these should not be part of your estate just like all your other assets and dealt with accordingly by the executor. They do not belong to Microsoft or any other provider – they belong to the client.

    As for the secrecy around suicide, in my opinion it is far past its use-by-date. I agree with Nostalgia and Rolla. Copy-cat crimes can occur in all categories of crime but we live with reporting everything except technical details and in my view suicides should be treated similarly.

    As usual, the best cure is usually more information rather than less. In the case of suicide, the obvious areas for better information are the impact on families and the options for dealing with depression. John Kirwan is a national treasure and if anyone deserves the highest recognition for service to the community, he does.

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