An Victorian coroner’s inquest into three youth suicides at a Geelong high school in 2009 has raised questions about the media’s role in reporting suicides.
Coroner Judge Gray is investigating the deaths of Zac Harvey, 15, Taylor Janssen, 16, and Chanelle Rae, 14, who were students at different campuses of Western Heights College, when they ended their lives over a period of five months.
The coroner has heard evidence about the various factors which can contribute to suicides, which is the leading cause of death among young people.
“It’s not the way to go, for anybody, it’s not the way to go. It’s not good,” said Taylor’s mother, Helen Janssen.
“Just be careful and watch them if you think they are struggling. Talk to them, do whatever you can because it can happen so quickly. Hug them, keep them tight.”
Taylor was a popular teenager who dreamed of being a lawyer and had been in a long-term relationship with Zac.
“They were so close, they were always together and stuff like that,” Mrs Janssen said.
“I can still see her face when she found out, she was just devastated,” Mrs Jannsen recalled.
“She said to her friends she didn’t want to go on and that’s when I said to Steven we should really watch her as much as we can. And we thought she was fine. She was starting to eat again and she was starting to get better.”
However, three weeks after Zac Harvey’s death, Taylor Janssen also took her life.
“Steven got home and found her. She was in hospital about 30 hours on the life support-type thing,” Mrs Jannsen said.
“We thought that she was going to wake up, but she never got to wake up for us to talk to her again.
“I think she thought there was nothing else, but him. In the letter that she left us she just thought that there was nothing else.”
Zac and Taylor’s deaths were followed soon after by that of fellow student Chanelle Rae.
Concerns over media coverage
The impact on the town from the deaths was profound, but the ensuing media coverage also distressed some residents.
Chanelle’s mother, Karen Rae, believes the extensive media coverage following Taylor and Zac’s deaths contributed to her daughter’s death.
She also told court her family was hounded by the media in the aftermath of her daughter’s death.
The department of education reported severe distress to the entire school community after Chanelle’s death, compounded by the conduct of some journalists covering the story.
Former Victorian premier and Beyond Blue chairman Jeff Kennett sought to stop Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes from airing a story at the time.
“We had complaints from family members, we had complaints from school that some of these journalists were behaving reprehensibly in terms of the suffering that these families were going through at the time, but also it was as though they were actually promoting the deaths,” Mr Kennett said.
Calls for new procedures for reporting suicide
The chief executive of the national youth mental health foundation Headspace, Chris Tanti, acknowledged fears about media coverage.
“Suicide is particularly problematic and the concern we have in the sector is that other people as a result of that reporting don’t go on to take their own lives,” Mr Tanti said.
“I think there are ways of talking about suicide that minimise the likelihood that others will take their own lives.”
Dr Mandy Oakham from the RMIT School of Media says journalists’ coverage is complicated by discussion of suicide on social media.
“We’ve got to take account of social media and the role of that media in these people’s lives,” Dr Oakham said.
“Journalists will cover these stories. The suicide cluster in community like Geelong that was a massive story and it was going to be covered. The news values preordained that there would be massive coverage.
“So we’ve got to come up with a way of instructing journalists to formulate a pattern of behaviour that is going to work in this new environment.”
In the past the media’s approach to reporting suicide has been to minimise coverage and limit discussion.
But the Geelong Advertiser chose to run a ground breaking campaign on youth suicide in Geelong and was later commended by Suicide Prevention Australia.
Mr Kennett is among those who believes media coverage of suicide needs to change.
“I think we need to talk about suicide, I think we need to talk about it in a different method than we have in the past. We’ve got to convey the message that those who are thinking of ending their lives leave those they love behind to grieve for the rest of their lives.”
Mr Tanti says coverage needs to underline the pain which suicide can cause to others.
“When I’ve worked with young people who are contemplating suicide, the thing that commonly stops them from doing that is the impact on family and friends and they don’t really think about what their future might look like – because they don’t really see a future,” Mr Tanti said.
“I think that being clear there is an impact and often a devastating, long-lasting impact on family and friends and I think that needs to be clearly articulated.”
This article first appeared on ABC News on 21 November, 2013.