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Amended Nigerian mental health bill

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By Mercy Kelani

Suicide criminalization hinders promotion of mental health in the country.

In January, 2023, Nigeria passed a new mental health bill that poses questions of its efficiency to protect people at risk of suicide. The National Mental Health Bill 2021 was designed to replace the Lunacy Act of 1958 — an act which categorized individuals with mental health conditions as dangers and threats to themselves and the society. The act was made through colonial influences. It has no precise definition and has failed to level up to mental health and human rights global policies, depriving those with mental health conditions of their basic human rights.

Nigeria is one of about 17 countries which has existing anti-suicide laws. Although the recent mental health bill is revolutionary through its language, respect for human rights, and commitment to promoting mental health, it refused to tackle the issue of criminalizing suicide. Suicide criminalization remains a major threat to promoting mental health in Nigeria. The association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria has called out the dangers of criminalizing, arguing that a more humane response should be given to people with suicidal intentions.

Ghana decriminalized suicide in February, 2023.

Many Nigerian organizations have bore the responsibility of raising awareness and support for people during difficult times. Nigerian Mental Health with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched a petition titled Decriminalize Attempted Suicide in Nigeria, receiving over 3,000 signatures. The Suicide Research and Prevention Initiative and Sunshine Series continually raises awareness, creating hotlines to support people in times of crisis. The Republic of Ghana, in February 2023 decriminalized suicide through passage of the Criminal Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2021.

Before passage of the bill in Ghana, a report showed that a good number of individuals who attempted suicide have poor socioeconomic backgrounds and have highlighted health, family problems and poverty as major reasons for attempted suicides — there are similarities between the economic and sociocultural factors of Ghana and Nigeria. The refusal of Nigeria to decriminalize suicide is an impediment to progress and a contradiction to what the mental health bill says. Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act and Section 231 of the Penal Code Act contradict the aims of the mental health bill.

The new bill emphasizes promotion of treatment and mental health.

One of the major objectives of the bill is to protect ”persons with mental and substance abuse disorders from discrimination, victimization and unfair treatment by employers, academic institutions and agencies”. The aforementioned objective is relegated by suicide criminalization in the country. Therefore, it was said that an amendment in mental health policy significantly requires similar amendment in criminal law to foster positive change. The new bill calls for treatment and mental health promotion but the Nigerian prison system lacks rehabilitation with inhumane conditions that could cause new mental health conditions.

Nigeria’s new mental health bill encourages treatment and rehabilitation for individuals with suicidal intentions. However, there has been no success in achieving this goal as these individuals need to feel secure enough to open up concerning their mental health conditions and request help but have been unable to, due to the risk of persecution from family members, communities and authorities. The act of criminalizing is an hindrance to suicide surveillance which gives relevant data and suicide rates in the country for effective prevention initiatives.

A national helpline to provide mental health support will be helpful.

Experts have advised that rather than deploying legal consequences as suicide prevention scheme, promotion of mental health education and awareness should be emphasized to lessen the pressure of suicide stigmatization. The country urgently needs policy and practice interventions. Establishment of a national helpline for provision of mental health support is a good step to begin with. Religious leaders can also be trained to render non-specialized mental health support to individuals with suicidal thoughts, while religious institutions serve as haven for them.

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