May 8, 2009

GEORGINA O'HALLORAN

THE DUBLIN City Coroner has expressed concern about the accuracy of suicide statistics, raising fears that the incidence of suicide may be greater than official figures indicate.

Dr Brian Farrell has called on the Central Statistics Office (CSO) to carry out a national survey of coroners’ records to ensure that suicide mortality is properly recorded.

“Our statistics on suicide are probably inaccurate,” said Dr Farrell. “Official statistics show Dublin to have a lower suicide rate than the rest of the country,” he said, referring to a 2007 report. “There must be serious doubt that this is the case.

“A national survey, based primarily on coroners’ records, which contain extensive information in relation to all unnatural deaths, including suicide, is required for comprehensive information and accurate statistics on suicide mortality,” he said.

“At the Dublin City Coroner’s Court we are endeavouring to bring in suicide verdicts at inquest and we are recording the verdict on the Coroner’s Certificate.”

The call follows a growing concern that many deaths in Dublin, which should be recorded as suicides by the CSO, are instead being classified as “undetermined” deaths on the basis of a form (Form 104) supplied to the statistics office by the Garda Síochána following an inquest.

A 2007 report by the National Suicide Research Foundation suggested that misclassification of suicides as deaths of undetermined intent was common in Dublin compared to the rest of the country and that such misclassification could explain most of the difference between Dublin’s low suicide rate and the rate elsewhere.

Dr Farrell, who expressed his concerns at a recent conference on suicide, said he believed gardaí attending inquests at the Dublin City Coroner’s Court may be unduly influenced by the higher standard of proof required to bring in a verdict of suicide at inquests.

“They are perhaps documenting deaths as undetermined on the Form 104 where they should, on the balance of probability, be recording the death as a suicide . . . At inquests at the Dublin City Coroner’s Court the legal test of beyond a reasonable doubt is strictly applied in accordance with case law. The evidence must prove that the deceased killed himself or herself, that there is intention and that it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

“When the evidence does not meet the required standard at inquest an open verdict must be returned by the coroner but this does not necessarily apply to the gardaí completing Form 104.”

The coroner said the introduction of a revised Form 104 was necessary to allow the Garda to give more comprehensive information to the CSO as to the means by which the death occurred.

“Effective suicide prevention programmes are dependent on the availability of quality information and statistics. We’re not getting quality information statistically on suicides because at present the CSO are relying mainly on the existing Form 104 and are not utilising coroners’ records.”

A spokeswoman for the CSO said in determining suicide as a cause of death, the CSO considered the information provided in three forms: a form supplied by the Registrar of Births and Deaths (Form 102); the Coroner’s Certificate; and Form 104 supplied by the Garda Síochána. One of the issues which contributed to the lower suicide rate for Dublin was the higher non-return of Form 104 for the Dublin area, she said.

A new Coroner’s Bill is currently before the Oireachtas.

According to CSO figures, in 2007 the number of suicides was 460, or 10.6 per 100,000 population. In 2006 there were 409 and in 2005 there were 431.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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