Speech by Mr. Tim O’Malley T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the launch of “Media Guidelines for the Portrayal of Suicide”

I was delighted to receive and accept the invitation by the Irish Association of Suicidology and the Samaritans to launch their “Media Guidelines for the Portrayal of Suicide”. I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge and recognise the importance and value of both associations’ work in creating an awareness of suicide, helping in suicide prevention and now providing helpful guidelines for the portrayal of suicide by the media.

As you know, the media play a very important part in raising awareness about suicide and suicide prevention and in changing the stigma and our attitudes to suicidal behaviour and to mental illness. Suicides can be newsworthy and dramatic events. That an individual has chosen to end their life, deliberately and prematurely, suggests that there’s a story to be told. For journalists and editors, suicide presents a dilemma. It can be an issue of public interest and it is clearly the responsibility of the reporter to convey the news. Indeed, there can be a positive aspect to reporting suicide, as debate may help to destigmatise the subject and provoke a wider discussion about the importance of good emotional health. But research also shows that inappropriate reporting or photography can lead to copycat suicides.

I am informed that these guidelines have suggestions for journalists and writers, photographers and directors, working in television, radio, theatre, film, print and electronic media. The guidelines are not meant to be exhaustive and they do not seek to dictate, because each situation is different. They aim to offer support in deciding how to approach what is ultimately one of the most difficult things to write or speak about. These guidelines offer practical suggestions in relation to appropriate reporting of suicide; such as the use of appropriate language, including details of sources of information, the avoidance of simplistic explanations for suicide and the effect it can have on survivors of suicide.

As we are all aware, there was in the past a reluctance to even discuss the issue of suicide. Thankfully, this situation has now changed. In Ireland, the level of discussion and openness on mental health issues, including deliberate self harm and suicide has increased significantly in recent years. This is a very welcome development. However, we do need to ensure that public discussion and media coverage of suicide and deliberate self harm remains measured, well informed and sensitive to the needs and well-being of psychologically vulnerable and distressed individuals in our society. In particular, we need to continue to work as a society to create a culture and environment where people in psychological distress feel able to seek help from family, friends and health professionals.

Suicide touches the lives of many people and is in every case a tragedy, both for the life that has ended and the family, friends and community left behind. Many of us will know someone who has attempted or completed suicide.

The encouragement and support given by the Samaritans to those suffering from a sense of hopelessness is very commendable. We cannot ignore or be complacent about the growing incidence of suicide and self-harm in this country. Preventing suicide and reducing the rate of suicide in Ireland is therefore an urgent public health issue, one that goes right to the heart of our efforts and policies to create a healthy, prosperous and socially inclusive Ireland.

The number of deaths by suicide registered by the Central Statistics Office was 431 in 2005. Young males have shown a significant increase in the rate of suicide in the last decade, with 321 such deaths in 1995 rising to 353 in 2005. These findings reinforce the need for sustained and co-ordinated action in response to the ongoing problem of suicidal behaviour.

I recognise the many challenges that lie ahead and I am aware that there are no easy or single interventions that will bring a guarantee of success. International evidence shows that reducing the suicide rate and preventing suicides requires a collective, concerted effort from all groups in society – health, social services and other professionals, communities, voluntary and statutory agencies and organisations, parents, friends, neighbours and individuals.

In this regard, many of you present here today will be aware that the National Strategy for Action on Suicide Prevention was launched on 8th September last by An Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney. In my view, it is very appropriately titled “Reach Out”. A fundamental aim of the new strategy is to prevent suicidal behaviour, including deliberate self-harm, and to increase awareness of the importance of good mental health among the general population. Ongoing, quality, multi-disciplinary research will be an essential strand of the strategy and findings will be of greatest value where they can inform and stimulate action and service development.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is taking a lead role in overseeing the implementation of the strategy, in partnership with those statutory and voluntary organisations that have a key role to play in making the actions happen. Driving the implementation of the Strategy is the National Office for Suicide Prevention within the National Population Health Directorate of the HSE. The role of the national office is to coordinate suicide prevention activities across the State, consult widely in relation to the planning of future initiatives, and ensure best practice in suicide prevention.

As many of you are aware, the launch here today was timed to coincide with the launch of these Guidelines in Belfast. This in one of a number of initiatives planned between the National Office for Suicide Prevention and the Health Promotion Agency in Northern Ireland. Other areas identified for joint actions include a public awareness campaign on mental health promotion and joint training and awareness packages. I welcome all such initiatives.

In conclusion, I would like to assure you that the Government is committed to the implementation of suicide prevention initiatives and the further development of our mental health services in order to prevent, and reduce further tragic loss of life.

Thank you