Suicide: caution and conversation

Should we talk about suicide? If so, how should we talk about suicide? And will doing so have any effect at all on reducing the number of New Zealanders taking their own lives and help ease - or only add to - the pain of those bereaved in that way?

These are the questions at the heart of one of this country's most complex, distressing and perplexing subjects.

The issue has long lurked in the shadows, despite the fact our statistics are among the worst in the developed world, meaning most New Zealanders will have been affected in some way. The matter is emerging into the spotlight, however.

Public unrest is growing over all aspects of mental health, and whether the care and services provided are adequate for the numbers who require support.

The online world, and our ready access to digital devices, has increased our exposure to a range of negative forces, and youth are particularly vulnerable to the likes of bullying through that medium.

Last year the Coroners Amendment Act was passed, loosening slightly some of the uniquely severe restrictions on media reporting of the issue in this country. (This means deaths can now be reported initially as a suspected suicide and as a suicide after coronial confirmation.)

There is still much debate about what, if anything, should be discussed in the public domain. Much of that (and the reason for the strict reporting rules) was based on the fear that reporting the subject might legitimise it for anyone vulnerable, and that reporting method and location might spur and enable copycat behaviour.

Many mental health advocates still prefer the silent approach. However, there are increasingly those who feel that approach could be hindering matters. (The differences were exemplified in a story in this newspaper yesterday which showed WellSouth and Life Matters were at odds with how to approach World Suicide Prevention Day this Sunday.)

High-profile names are advocating for more openness. Former All Black Sir John Kirwan has, in conjunction with the Mental Health Foundation, done much in recent years to destigmatise depression, by sharing his personal experience.

Entertainer Mike King recently resigned from the Government's suicide prevention strategy panel, accusing it of being more of the same (the Ministry of Health has had a suicide prevention strategy in place since 2006, and this is being used to inform the new draft strategy).

With tensions high as we approach the world prevention day, which, like any such marked ''anniversary'', will be a difficult one for anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, it is important to remember fundamentals.

It is vital to respect all views and experiences. Everyone involved is motivated to do their best, even if opinions on how to do that differ. There are no obvious or simple solutions to this complex issue, however much we might desire them. People will want and need to approach the matter in different ways based on their experiences, as well as social, cultural and religious perspectives.

The fact is, however, not talking widely about the problem has not made a difference to the numbers. Increased conversation offers a different path and with it, hope. But, in a transition period, which inevitably carries risks, it is right still to be cautious.

It must be remembered, while advocates are working to prevent more suicides, bringing the conversation into the open will inevitably open wounds for people already bereaved, forcing them to confront pain, shame, guilt and anger sometimes long buried. Sensitivity and support is essential.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

The Depression Helpline:

0800 111-757

Healthline: 0800 611-116

Lifeline: 0800 543-354

Samaritans: 0800 726-666

Youthline: 0800 376-633, txt 234 or talk@youthline.co.nz

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