In the interests of public safety

August 24, 2011 in General

Once again, a death by suicide has made media headlines, thanks to Coroner Ian Smith’s decision to release explicit details of the method by which a 23-year-old man chose to take his own life.

Despite the police asking the family for confidentiality, as they feared copycat deaths, the coroner decided to release the method anyway, and the media obligingly published the method in explicit detail.

The coroner’s logic for publishing runs like this:

“There is a body of opinion that believe it is detrimental to allow the publication of particulars of suicide in that it may induce what I have referred to as ”the copycat syndrome”.

“I believe that due to the availability to any person who is able to access a computer database in this age, that it is information freely available for the world to see. The cat as they say is out of the bag.”

A pretty poor choice of words to start with, given that the man gassed himself to death with a plastic bag over his head.

My major issue with his comments above though is with his phrase “body of opinion”. It’s not a body of opinion, Mr Smith, it’s a body of evidence. Quite significant evidence, in fact, that directly relates reporting of suicide method with increased deaths by that method. As a coroner, you deal in evidence, so it’s a shame you don’t have more respect for it in this case.

Here’s just a few studies, from a literature review by Australian suicide researcher Jane Pirkis:

  • In 1981 and 1982, a 6-episode series depicting the railway suicide of a 19-year-old was shown on television in Germany – research found that “after each screening there was a significant increase in suicides by the same method, with the effect lasting at least 70 days”
  • In 2008, reporting of celebrity suicides in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea were examined – in the four weeks following the reports, there was a 63% increase in suicides by the same method chosen by the celebrity
  • In 2001 and 2004, suicide rates were examined three weeks prior to and after the reporting of a celebrity suicide by gunshot in 1990 – significant increases in suicide deaths by firearms were found between the two periods which were not apparent in any other year

According to Pirkis, there have been at least one hundred studies conducted internationally examining the relationship between media reporting of suicide and suicidal behaviour. So we are well outside the realm of opinion here.

To his credit, Mr Smith has called for restrictions on the sale of helium:

He recommended for the Minister of Environment to review of the Hazardous Substances and New Organism Act and the Environment Risk Management Authority of the classification of inert gasses, and helium in particular.

“Helium should be classified as being hazardous/toxic, considering that it could be fatal when inhaled as it effectively stopped oxygen to the body which led to asphyxiation.

The Minister of Consumer Affairs should undertake a review regarding sale of helium gas to the public, in particular if there should be an age restriction for the sale.

Recreational sale of the gas should be in a container fitted with an irremovable restrictor valve.

The ministry should also consider adding a percentage of oxygen in helium supplied for party balloons, as was the practice in the United Kingdom, Mr Smith said.”

Great recommendations – but these need to be enacted quickly.

What’s not being understood here is how the brain of a suicidal person works: they are looking for signs and signals in their environment to either affirm their feelings or take them down a different path.

The depth of suicidal feelings and urges in a vulnerable person can change by the minute, the hour, the day. In this tragic case, the young man concerned was already looking up this method on the internet and had planned how he was going to do it.

This was used as a justification by the coroner for publishing, as seen in his quote above from the Dominion Post and this one from the Herald:

“…within any community it didn’t take long after an individual suicide for it to become aware of the event on the “bush telegraph”, and ignite any copycat surges.”

This is a nonsense – there’s a massive difference between whispers in a community and publishing detail that will then be put in front of hundreds of thousands of people as they eat their breakfast.

This method has long been known overseas as it is widely promoted by euthanasia advocates – perhaps because we don’t have such an active right-to-die movement here is a reason why it is not better known.

Smith’s recommendations should have been conveyed to the appropriate authorities and acted upon quickly, rather than publishing them. In the meantime, while we wait for such safety nets to be put in place, ideas will be put in the heads of vulnerable people.

When it comes to widespread public discussion of suicide, methods are a red herring:

“The family had been aware of their man’s depression but had underestimated the impact that it had on his psychological state, his father told the inquest.”

The real issue that could have saved this young man’s life is inherent in that phrase above.

An article that focused on the details leading up to this young man’s death, the nature of his depression and the face he presented to the outside world would do far more to prevent future deaths by suicide than the attention-grabbing headline of a “novelty” suicide method.

Or, if we’re talking about public safety, the potential dangers of helium use stretch beyond its use for intentional death, as college students in the United States have fatally discovered.

The potential negative impact of this article could have been mitigating by investigating the wider issue of helium danger, but it seems the media are still fixated, like a naughty child, on the breaking of so-called taboos.

If you need to talk to someone:
Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999
Youthline 0800 376 633
Samaritans 0800 726 666 [lower North Island]

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