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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Suicide: breaking the last media taboo

It's sort of crazy to keep silent about the last taboo in the media - about suicide - because it does seem that progress is being made in some sectors. Witness for example the nice tribute put up yesterday by the ABC for Nic MacBean, an employee of that organisation who had lived with depression and had suicided as a result of that experience.

But then the story about rugby union legend Jonah Lomu, which also came out in the media yesterday, made you wonder about cause of death as none was explicitly stated in any of the stories (although his ongoing kidney problems suggest that complications associated with them might have been the direct cause).

That story actually reminded me of the stubborn silence surrounding the unexpected death of columnist Sam De Brito, which hit the front pages some weeks ago (and which made me suggest another reason for the death).

Although I haven't heard any opinions from experts talking about suicide refer to the MacBean story, it seemed to me to be how these sorts of things can start to be usefully discussed publicly. Sure, it is a bit schmaltzy and sentimental but that's to be expected once you start going down that path. In any case a bit of schmaltz is better than complete silence, which is what we usually get when suicide is the cause of death.

How ironic then - especially after I had voiced my concerns about the Lomu death on Twitter - that on the ABC's 7.30 program last night there was a story that ended up recommending that in Australia we publish regular suicide statistics, so that we can judge how we are going on the road to a safer future for all residents of the country. A terrific idea if not a complete no-brainer, I think.

While it is not illegal to suicide one's better instinct says that we collectively should do everything we can to prevent it. Of course, sometimes the idea of suicide seems so much less terrible than current reality, which accounts for its continued prevalence in society.

But another reason why keeping public records on suicide is a good idea is so that we can better discuss the issue among ourselves. And public discussion is often the first step toward arriving at good policy, or at least at agreeing on ways to address an issue that appears at first to resist a solution. Silence never helped anyone, and people living with mental illness know this better than anyone. Sometimes it makes all the difference just to be able to have a chat.

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