Some coroners 'under-report cases of suicide'
Figures flawed as officials admit they choose to record open verdicts, investigation reveals
SOME coroners are deliberately under-reporting suicide with others openly admitting they rarely record suicide verdicts because of the stigma still surrounding such deaths, a Sunday Independent investigation can reveal.
New figures compiled by this newspaper show a significant variance in suicide rates between various coroners throughout the country.
This means that some coroners are not accurately recording deaths, resulting in suicide figures being flawed and not representing the true magnitude of the suicide problem in Ireland.
The Central Statistics Office, which we rely on for accurate figures and information, provides different figures from those recorded by the coroners. If a coroner fails to determine a verdict, the CSO then re-examines the file and can record a statistical death of suicide, or whatever it sees fit.
Among the findings of the Sunday Independent survey* are:
• Some coroners freely admit they rarely return a suicide verdict.
• A wide disparity between the standards laid down for a verdict of death by suicide in coroners' courts across the country.
• An ever-increasing number of young men are dying by suicide.
• An increasing number of elderly farmers living in isolated rural areas are taking their own lives.
• Overwhelming stress from the financial crisis is an increasing factor in some deaths.
• Large numbers of single-car collisions, in the early hours of the morning, are suspected of being suicides; however, they are almost impossible to record as suicide.
This newspaper contacted every coroner in the country requesting inquest and suicide figures for 2011. However, some coroners declined this request.
On average, coroners nationwide find a verdict of suicide in 36 per cent of all inquests.
Dublin City Coroner Brian Farrell (9 per cent) and Cork City Coroner Myra Cullinane (11 per cent) have the lowest percentage rate of suicide verdicts in the country. However, this is predominately due to the high number of cases that come before their courts and the myriad different cases as both are in jurisdictions that contain major hospitals.
The Dublin City Coroner also returned 37 open verdicts.
In contrast, Wexford coroner Sean Nixon recorded 52 per cent of the cases coming before him as suicide.
"I don't get much pressure from families; I bring in the verdict that I think is the correct one. I don't think that the stigma is there surrounding suicide anymore. We need to get to the stage where if it is a suicide it gets reported as suicide," he said.
However, it seems most coroners are widely recording open verdicts that illustrate a death in medical terms in order to avoid using the word suicide or if they are in fact unsure whether the person died by suicide.
One coroner, who did not wish to be identified, said he would not want to return a verdict of suicide because he "wouldn't want to leave a stain on the family".
Brian Mahon, the Offaly coroner, said he would be reluctant to use the word suicide in a verdict and instead points to the medical evidence.
"I don't tend to use the word suicide in a verdict, but it would be clear that it was self-inflicted. I tend to stick more to the medical evidence, such as death by self-inflicted gunshot wound or death by hanging but the verdict would be clear.
"Families tend not to lobby anymore, but it used to happen years ago. Now, I sometimes have families approach me worried about publicity and if their son's name is going to appear in the newspaper, but I have no control over that," he said.
Fine Gael TD Derek Keating raised the issue in the Dail last month of the Roscommon coroner Desmond O'Connor allegedly not recording suicides. When the Sunday Independent contacted Mr O'Connor's office his secretary insisted he would not be releasing figures from his court to this newspaper -- despite the fact that they are part of the public record -- or making any comment.
President of the Irish Association of Suicidology and Fine Gael TD Dan Neville, who has campaigned tirelessly for mental health awareness for almost 20 years and played a critical role in having suicide decriminalised, criticised coroners for not accurately recording deaths, even though he believes they are doing so in an attempt to protect families from further trauma.
"It is obvious that some coroners want to protect families from the trauma of suicide but we need accurate figures on a national level to deal with this problem.
"The recent high-profile cases in the UK of soccer player Gary Speed and Irish boxer Darren Sutherland -- both of whom were found hanged but a verdict of suicide was not returned -- shows how coroners can create uncertainty.
"In other countries, such as Scotland, undetermined deaths are recorded with suicide figures, which I think gives a much more accurate reflection," he said.
"The stigma surrounding suicide has changed, but it has a massive way to go. The stigma that is there is not assisting the public discussion into why we have so many suicides in this country.
"Government funding is totally inadequate in the mental health sector.
"The Government delivered an additional €35m in the budget, but it's still not enough," he added.
The Sixties saw the introduction of Form 104 which is filled in by gardai who find an individual whom they believe has died by suicide. It was essential in recording suicides because prior to 1993 suicide was a criminal offence and under the law coroners cannot make a criminal ruling.
However, suicide was decriminalised in 1993, yet the form still exists.
Gardai were also found to be under-reporting suicide. An examination of Form 104 found a massive under-reporting of suicide.
Calls have already been made for the Minister for Justice to establish standard operating procedures for coroners on the reporting of suicides; however, a spokesperson for the minister said it would not be appropriate to comment on the operating procedures of coroners.
"Given the independence of coroners, as provided for by the Coroners Act 1962, the development of standard operating procedures for coroners would not be appropriate."
(*The Sunday Independent contacted every coroner in the country; however, some refused to release figures for 2011 despite several requests.)