According to the 2014 World Health Organisation report, the suicide rate in Guyana is five times higher than the world average. This puts Guyana at the top of the list with 44.2 per 100,000 people, the highest suicide rate in the world. And, again, this does not even take into account the number of suicide attempts recorded, and unrecorded. It is estimated that there are between 1,500 to 2,000 attempted suicide cases each year or about one attempt every 5 hours, in Guyana.
This is depressing news, especially for people who are already depressed in Guyana. And Guyana has a high percentage of depressed people. But while it is important to fight to reduce depression, in and of itself, it is also important, at the same time, to make every effort to not render depressed persons, especially suicidal persons, more depressed, and more suicidal, with news of suicide. Especially news which not only details the names of the deceased persons and their appearances but also gives information about what method was used to effectively commit the suicide.
Guyana is small, and just as a family history of suicide leads to more suicides, suicide in such a small community will likely lead to more suicides, especially where the circumstances that each person in the community faces is practically equal and uniform. That is, unless the news of each suicide is reported in a controlled and responsible manner. But that is exactly what is NOT happening in Guyana.
Almost each day when Guyanese open the local newspapers they are bombarded with news that someone from their own community facing circumstances and hardships very similar to theirs, is dead as a result of suicide. And further, they get a good idea from the reports, in pictures if not in words, as to the methods used to commit the act.
Up to recently, again, attempts to convince media operatives in Guyana to desist from their present practices through workshops on the topic have proven futile. News of suicides seems to boost viewership and ratings for news entities generally and this does not exactly deter their irresponsible behaviour. In fact, it can be argued that it seems that media operatives in Guyana are aiming to do the opposite of that. Recently, after much effort on the part of many, the media outlets have significantly reduced their reporting of suicides. But there is nothing at present stopping any one media outlet from going back to business as usual. Almost every country in the world has media guidelines and opted not to introduce legislation to curb the issue of irresponsible suicide reporting. But in those countries the media guidelines are strict and the media entities comply with them fully.
Only in New Zealand has there been a move to legislate on this matter. +
There, the Coroner’s Act has been amended to block the reporting of deaths as suicides until the Coroner deems the death to be a suicide. This seems to be not only a sensible approach but from a legal perspective it helps investigations into all deaths before a general errant conclusion can be had that it was a suicide. At one point in time the Act went so far as to even block reports of “suspected suicides”. As the law stands in that country at the moment however, a death may be reported as a “suspected suicide” provided that the report follows the usual guidelines.
It goes without saying that Guyana, having the highest suicide rate in the world, would be better off blocking both reports of suicide AND suspected suicide. Some arguments in favour of local legislative intervention include –
1. Guyana has the highest suicide rate in the world and risking any other form of intervention would be ineffective and deadly.
2. Media guidelines do not dictate to journalists what to do. Rather, they aim to empower and encourage journalists to collaborate with researchers and public health policy makers to help save lives by reporting in a responsible manner. They further do not guide the actions of non-media entities that may wish to report a suicide. Hence they would not suffice.
3. Many workshops have been held with media entities in Guyana regarding suicide reporting in particular, much to no avail.
4. There is no harm in using legislation to tackle this important issue in Guyana and in fact, there is indeed precedence elsewhere for legislative intervention.
5. Guyana would be the first country to pass a Suicide Reporting Act to effectively save the lives of its citizens in a dire situation.
Many countries have indeed managed to reduce their suicide rates without statutory restrictions on media. But they have strict media guidelines on the issue and their suicide rates are not the highest in the world. Guyana cannot afford to risk a less strict approach.
Some may argue that reducing the dialogue about suicide may have a negative effect on how we learn more about its other causes and how we work to prevent those causes. But legislative intervention does not aim to curtail all talk about suicide and suicide prevention. It is specifically aimed at fighting irresponsible reporting. Debates will still be encouraged about suicide but will be restricted from involving mention of details of individual suicides.
It is in these premises I propose that a Bill be drafted and introduced to the Parliament to curtail the reporting of deaths as suicides or suspected suicides, whether by media entities or members of the public, before the Coroner deems the death to be a suicide. The Bill will also guide reports of deaths, whether emanating from media entities or members of the public, so that they do not reflect even the suspicion that a death may have been a suicide, before the Coroner deems the death to be a possible suicide.
The Bill should further guide the reports of deaths properly deemed suicides so that they do not give rise to further suicides. I am positive that with a Bill we can better guarantee the safety of our citizens from this plague that has gripped us for so long. I charge those who have the power to pass a Bill of this nature to do so at the earliest.
John M. Fraser LL.B.
Legislative Drafting Division
Attorney General’s Chambers and Ministry of Legal Affairs
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