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The battle to decriminalize suicide

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By Abraham Adekunle

Many countries still surprisingly consider attempted suicide as a crime.

It may be quite surprising for many to learn that attempting self-harm in some parts of the world is a crime. It attracts punishment just as other crimes such as stealing or destroying government property do. For instance, in Nigeria, attempting to commit self-homicide is a crime. Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act says, “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”

In countries where it has been decriminalized, the act is stigmatized and discouraged, and it can hinder people from seeking help. Research shows that decriminalizing the act removes barriers to seeking help for mental health problems and rates tend to then decline. So, when Ghana parliament voted to decriminalize suicide and attempted suicide in March 2023, Prof. Joseph Osafo felt a weight lift from his shoulders. The head of psychology at the University of Ghana had been engaged in a near 20-year battle to abolish the law. It was brought in by the British and it stated that anyone who attempts self-murder should face imprisonment or a fine.

Decriminalizing the act creates a domino effect in countries.

Ghana, Malaysia, Guyana and Pakistan are four countries which have decriminalized it in the past one year. More could soon follow. Campaigners say it is a sign of greater awareness and understanding of mental health. Kenya and Uganda have filed petitions to overturn these laws and members of the UN group of Small Island Developing States have committed to decriminalize it. Nigeria and Bangladesh are also holding discussions on this. Muhammad Ali Hasnain, a barrister from United for Global Mental Health, a group calling for its decriminalization, said that there seems to be a domino effect taking place.

He said that as one country decriminalizes it, others start to follow suit. Sarah Kline, the organization’s chief executive, said that this is quite unusual and a huge sign of progress as well as an important step forward for the populations most at risk. More than 700,000 people globally die by killing themselves every year, and about three-quarters (77 percent) of these people are in low- and middle-income countries. It is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-old.

Outlawing suicide discriminates against people who need help.

At least 17 countries still have laws that label the act as a criminal offense. In April 2022, Jordan House of Representatives passed a draft law approving six-month jail terms for anyone attempting self-harm and/or a fine of 100 Jordanian dinars ($141). The law also specifies that the punishment will be more severe in cases of mass martyrdom. In Nigeria, children as young as seven can be arrested, tried and prosecuted for attempting it.

Natalie Drew, a technical officer with the mental health policy and service development team at the World Health Organization, says that the consequences of these fines or jail terms can be devastating and can pose a huge barrier to addressing the problem. Health experts and advocates argue that it should be treated as a public health issue just as mental disorders are, rather than a crime. She added that outlawing the act denies people the right to access health services and discriminates against them because of something they are experiencing.

WHO to release guide on legalizing the act for policymakers.

Research shows that in countries where suicide has been legalized, people can seek help for mental health and rates tend to then decline. So, in September, the WHO is due to release a guide on legalizing suicide for policymakers, with explanations of how countries have managed it. In Ghana, Prof. Osafo is tasked with making sure the logistics, facilities and resources are in place for people needing support. He hopes Ghana’s decision will encourage other countries in the region to look at their statute books.

Related Links

Wikipedia: Website  World Health Organization: Website

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