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Published on May 14th, 2012

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The Human Toll

By Chris Brunner

The Heysen Chapel at Centennial Park looks west over a hillside of memorials bathed in the gentle warmth of the late-summer sun.

You can’t tell by looking at them, but some of those memorials hold a tragic truth – they belong to those who took their own lives.

The chapel is perhaps the most fitting, if not poignant, location for last month’s public forum on suicide prevention.

One man in the audience buried his son just three months ago, while many others have lost loved ones to suicide at some point in their lives.

Around 80 people bereaved by suicide are here to speak for their loved ones in a conversation about whether the media should publish suicide tolls in an effort to raise public awareness.

Jill Chapman knows only too well how some members of the audience feel.

“I’ve spent most of the last 10 years since the death of my son Michael in 2001 supporting other people bereaved through suicide,” Ms Chapman said.

As chair of Minimisation of Suicide Harm (MOSH), Ms Chapman has assembled some of South Australia’s expert minds on the topic of suicide prevention, including State Coroner Mark Johns, who deals with death for a living.

Mr Johns said before taking up his position, he had no concept of the amount of people lost to suicide each year.

He estimates that 10 per cent of the files he reviews in his role as Coroner are deaths by suicide.

“The reality of that hit me pretty hard,” he said.

“You do the math… the number of people lost to suicide in (SA) each year is roughly double the number of those lost by vehicle related causes.”

It was this revelation that prompted Mr Johns to publicly advocate for a suicide toll to be periodically published in the media.

He and other advocates for a suicide toll believe the road toll shows that heightened public awareness can reduce deaths.

But opponents cite research that suggests increased suicide reporting is linked to an increase in suicide deaths.

The Commissioner for Victims’ Rights Michael O’Connell said: “This so-called contagion… is a consequence of how the media report on deaths by suicide, and is not simply a result of media reporting.”

Mr O’Connell said there are lessons to be learnt from road safety campaigns, but argued “we should avoid the scoreboard approach that’s become commonplace in reporting on deaths on our roads.”

Around six people take their lives and 190 people attempt or contemplate suicide in Australia every day.

“Suicide is newsworthy and a legitimate subject for reporting,” Mr O’Connell said.

“It’s time to lift the shroud of silence and facilitate sensible media reporting as part of a campaign to prevent suicide and minimize suicide harm.”

At the forum, the man who lost his son three months prior questioned the “sensibility” of publishing a suicide toll.

“My son battled depression for four years,” he said.

“If he’d known there were so many people committing suicide he wouldn’t have fought that depression for so long.”

It’s clear there’s no easy way forward in this much-needed conversation.

The overriding fear for the bereaved is their loved ones will become a meaningless statistic, when the true story of their loss is written on their faces.

If you need help dealing with the death of a loved one or would like to get involved in suicide prevention, contact Jill Chapman at MOSH: 0418 857 727

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, contact Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 22 46 36 or Salvo Care Line 1300 36 36 22.

Story courtesy of On The Record. For Chris’ full article, head to www. ontherecordunisa.com.au/?p=2130.



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