Belfast Telegraph

Privacy plea for suicide inquests

Inquests into suicide deaths should be held in private, a leading charity has said.

The suicide prevention and bereavement organisation Console has called on the Government to remove the legal requirement for a public hearing into every death to make matters less traumatic and intrusive for grieving families.

Charity founder Paul Kelly marked World Suicide Prevention Day by calling for radical reform of the coroner's courts to replicate the system in Northern Ireland and Scotland where an inquest is only held in open court if it is in the public interest.

Mr Kelly said a decision not to hold a public hearing can be made if authorities such as the police and coroner agree privately that a death was by suicide.

"Families bereaved by suicide have gone through one of the most devastating events possible, and in many ways they can feel as if they are on being put on trial at a public inquest," said Mr Kelly.

"Traumatised families can be asked to give evidence, suicide notes can be made public and family members can be questioned about last conversations and the deceased's state of mind.

"Deeply private information about drugs or alcohol in the deceased's system, or if they had a row with someone before ending their life, can all be discussed in a public forum with the media in attendance.

"This is a deeply intrusive system, and one that should not exist as we face up to the reality that over 475 families this year will have to face this, sometimes unnecessary, trauma."

Official figures show 475 people died by suicide in Ireland last year.

However, debate has developed around the recording of statistics and questions have been asked about whether the figures are complete and how the high number of single vehicle road accidents which have caused deaths are classified.

Ireland has the fourth highest rate of suicide in Europe among the 15-24 age group.

Mr Kelly made the call for reforms to the inquest system and operation of coroner's courts at a conference in Croke Park to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.

Kathleen Lynch, junior minister in the Department of Health responsible for mental health, said the Government is very concerned about the high level of deaths in this area.

The minister said she was not certain suicide deaths are going under-reported.

The conference was also hearing discussions on whether young people are facing unique challenges not seen by other generations and the need for them to be educated in how to deal with emotional issues described as the "golden thread" running through problems such as alcohol and drug addiction, cyber bullying and self-harm.

Mr Kelly claimed the current system of inquests adds to the stigma and can prolong the family's grieving process unnecessarily and he called for a more sensitive approach and a non-adversarial system.

"Suicide and other sudden and unnatural deaths have to be investigated but the dignity and privacy of the family must be at the core of these proceedings," he said.

"Public inquests can have a trial-like aspect which harks back to the days before suicide was decriminalised in 1993.

"Families do not have to undergo such public scrutiny when someone dies of cancer and we feel that the individual private and personal circumstances surrounding deaths by suicide are not necessarily a matter of public interest.

"Another problem is that families may not get the opportunity to grieve properly because they are on tenterhooks waiting for an inquest which could take up to a year.

"They think the inquest is going to give them answers about their loved one's death when its actual role is to establish the facts and reach a medical conclusion."

Research from the St Patrick's University Hospital, Dublin was also discussed at the conference which showed stigma associated with suicide and mental health issues is extremely damaging.

The hospital found a fifth of those surveyed believe people with mental health problems are below average intelligence.

It also revealed two thirds would be reluctant to hire someone with a history of mental illness, believing them to be unreliable and 30% go as far as to say they would not accept someone with a mental health problem as a close friend.

Some 40% of people surveyed said seeking help for a mental health problem is a sign of personal failure.

Dan Neville, Fine Gael TD and president of the Irish Association of Suicidology, the stigma is often subtle, extremely damaging and deeply ingrained in Irish society.

"Stigma is extremely hurtful, causes prejudice, excludes and marginalises people, and, above all, it stops people giving help and being supportive. It also stops families and those suffering from seeking help," he said.

"Authorities and NGOs face a real challenge in raising awareness about all of the facts surrounding mental ill health and suicide. A deeper understanding of the real issues surrounding it will reduce the stigma and increase awareness of those seeking help."

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