I write to express my concerns with an article published on the Southland Times website and on Stuff.co.nz, titled Grieving mum speaks out about son's apparent suicide (22 April 2016).
The purpose of the article was misrepresented to the Mental Health Foundation when we were approached for comment. Your journalist stated that there was some distress in the Invercargill community, and he was writing an article to educate readers about how to support people who were struggling, how to spot warning signs and how to get help (and from whom).
After informing your journalist that reporting on recent suicides in the community would be in breach of the Coroners Act, we agreed to provide comment on suicide prevention. We provided your journalist with a list of support services available to people in Southland, and information about what to do in a crisis, supporting suicidal people, warning signs and how to start conversations. None of this information or material made it into the published article.
Following my interview with your journalist, we had some concerns about the direction his article might take, so we wrote to him again, explicitly cautioning him about the copycat effect that research has found to appear when media covers suicide in an unsafe way. We asked him to keep this in mind when writing his article.
It is extremely disappointing and concerning that this advice and information were almost entirely ignored. The published article was about an individual suicide and had no suicide prevention angle.
Including so much detail about the young person who took his life placed vulnerable readers at risk of thinking, “if it didn’t get better for him, why would it get better for me,” and then considering suicide as an option.
I am also concerned about the prominence of the article, which for some time was ranked very highly on Stuff.co.nz. Research tells us the risk of copycat behaviour is tied to the prominence of suicide coverage – people who are vulnerable to suicide may be searching for stories about suicide, and prominent news items are strongly associated with subsequent suicidal behaviour.
My comments about encouraging openness and communication were about the importance of encouraging discussion about feelings and reaching out when you’re in distress; I was not advocating for open and potentially unsafe discussion of suicide, which was the impression your article gave many readers.
The Southland Times and Stuff.co.nz have missed a valuable opportunity to prevent suicide, opting instead for an article that placed at risk the lives of vulnerable readers.
Media can play a role in helping to prevent suicides, but only by ensuring their reporting increases understanding, not risk.
Every death by suicide is a tragedy. We must work together to create hope for those who feel that all hope has gone. We must strengthen our whanau and our communities to better care for those who are vulnerable. The Mental Health Foundation is always available to support media to report on events that are of public interest in a way that will not cause further harm.
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
The Southland Times’ Response:
The Southland Times stands by its decision to publish a mother's personal story relating to the loss of a family member to apparent suicide.
To publish this story was not a decision that we took lightly and many considerations were taken into account prior to publication.
In this instance, the call to publish came with the approval of the mother who, prior to publication, had control of the story, photo and video used to send her message of awareness and education out into the community.
The Southland Times takes seriously its legal obligations as outlined in the Coroners Act. It also adheres to the Ministry of Health Guidelines on the reporting of suicide. We believe we met both our obligations under the Act and our commitment to Health Ministry guidelines when publishing these stories.
Our reporter was professional at all times, respectful and aware of the sensitive nature of this subject.
For that very reason, we ensured both stories published on the day referred to by Mr Norriss, provided wider context to the issue and aimed to ensure this tragic death was not seen in isolation or glorified.
In both of the stories, we sought expert advice.
Mental Health Foundation acting chief executive Hugh Norriss' comments appeared in one of the stories.
He is quoted as saying:
''One of the difficult things with suicide is there's no particular pattern that leads up to it. It's different in every case.
''We can only do our best and it's important not to blame each other. If someone encourages their family to talk about their problems, that's the right thing to do.''
Mr Norriss' comments on this story reflected the tone of both stories published that day, despite him being quoted in only one.
Together both stories were about starting a conversation, a way of letting people know it's okay to reach out and get support from friends and families.
We also published an extensive list of contact numbers of where people can go to get help, as we are required to do.
The Chief coroner's provisional suicide deaths by district health board region for 2014/15 lists the southern figure as 42.
The figures clearly show the south is not immune to suicide.
In the past six months, we've become aware of a number of suicides in our community and that prompted the stories.
No one was misled into speaking with us, nor were their words misused.
Section 71 of the Coroners Act states:
Restrictions on making public of details of self-inflicted deaths
The former chief coroner Judge Neil Maclean stated that he considers any “particular” relating to the manner of death to include the circumstances leading up to the death, including potential causal factors leading up to the death.
The Act is in place to protect vulnerable members of the public from being exposed to distressing information that may trigger suicidal thoughts or behaviour.
For more information visit the Ministry of Health's Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media.