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10th January 2017
Suicide is a national crisis. The law must stop hiding its true extent.
Stephen Habgood, PAPYRUS Chairman.
"It’s the UK’s leading cause of death for young people, but the way suicides are recorded may reduce the true number by 30-50% while perpetuating stigma ‘The way in which coroners determine death can perpetuate stigma around suicide.’
In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people between 10-34, according to Office for National Statistics figures released for 2015. Suicide leaves parents, partners and families devastated and broken, as I know only too well following the death of my own son Christopher by suicide in 2009.
As chairman of the charity PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide, I know that I am not alone in feeling that the way in which coroners determine death in such cases can perpetuate stigma around suicide.
PAPYRUS represents and works with hundreds of families who have been touched by suicide. We are angry that our loved ones were allowed to die; that not enough was done to keep them alive. And we are angry that the current government has not taken this issue seriously enough.
In February 2013 Ged Flynn and I met the newly appointed chief coroner Peter Thornton QC to express the view that it is fundamentally wrong to apply the criminal standard of proof, “beyond reasonable doubt”, when determining the cause of death in suicide, which means that many suicides are recorded as undetermined deaths. I was encouraged that Judge Thornton was receptive to my view when he wrote to me in March 2013 saying:
“I am supportive of the change which would reduce the standard of proof for suicide to the civil standard and have expressed the view to the Ministry of Justice.”
Yet, even with the support of their own chief coroner, the government has continued to accept the use of the criminal standard in reaching suicide conclusions. In fact, the MoJ has steadfastly refused to change the way that coroners reach a suicide conclusion, despite our persistent requests. This leads those of us campaigning on this issue to conclude that they want to deliberately suppress the figures around the number of people who take their own life each year.
Coroners are understandably reluctant to reach a conclusion of suicide. Many families who have lost loved ones to suicide, particularly when the deceased are their children, do not want to hear that they ended their own life. Yet the stigma that exists around suicide is still very damaging and not helped by high-profile examples where coroners have concluded that the deceased died because of an accident, or where a narrative verdict has been returned when the evidence clearly shows that the person took their own life.
New analysis by Professor Colin Pritchard at Bournemouth University suggests that if coroners used the civil standard of proof - “on the balance of probabilities” - we would see a 30-50% increase in recorded suicides. His research validates the view held by PAPYRUS that the current arrangements mask the true number of suicides in the UK.
The stigma that exists around suicide prevents young men especially from seeking the help and support they need In correspondence with the MoJ, it is clear that the department’s view is that using a criminal standard of proof does not necessarily criminalise suicide.
The coroner must establish “beyond reasonable doubt” that the deceased person had intended to end their own life.
PAPYRUS believes that the notion of “intent” is important in this context: in English criminal law, intention is one of the types of mens rea, “guilty mind”, that, when accompanied by an actus reus, “guilty act”, constitutes a crime. It is surprising that we use a criminal concept and a criminal standard of proof to determine the outcome of an act that was decriminalised by the Suicide Act 1961. Many still use the phrase “committed suicide”, which can be offensive and perpetuates a sense of criminality.
In a November 2014 meeting with the then justice minister Simon Hughes, the MoJ argued that a change to the law would offend faith groups. In the view of PAPYRUS the determination of a cause of death should be about establishing the facts, not about appeasing any particular sector of the community.
The House of Commons Health committee interim report on suicide prevention was published just a few weeks ago. The committee supports our objective to see a change to the way in which a suicide conclusion is reached.
The Health Committee also supports many of our key campaign areas: more timely support for young people; clearer media guidance around the reporting of suicide; support for those who have been touched by suicide; training for GPs and others.
It will be interesting to see how the government responds to this report.
The stigma that exists around suicide prevents young men especially from seeking the help and support they need. But many suicides are preventable and removing stigma around suicide is key in reducing the number of people who take their own life. Our helpline HOPELineUK receives thousands of calls each month from young people who are distressed, along with parents and carers who have no idea how to deal with a suicidal child. It’s time we took suicide seriously.
By being honest about the number of people who end their own life, we will be able to keep far more of our young people alive.
PAPYRUS has written again to the current Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to press for urgent action to change the law so that coroners might use the civil standard of proof to reach a suicide conclusion.