With some laws dating back as far as 160 years, criminalisation of suicide deter people from seeking help instead of saving their lives, campaigners say.

Suicide is still considered a crime in 20 countries where punishment range from a fine to one to three years of imprisonment, according to a report by United for Global Mental Health.  

Criminalising suicide has a far-reaching impact. Four countries mentioned in the report,  Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana and Kenya, allows the will of a suicide victim to be challenged in court and to be nullified. 

Many of these laws criminalising suicide are exceptionally old, dating back as far as 160 years, when mental health was grossly misunderstood and mentally ill patients abused.

The constitution of most post-colonial states is premised on the oppressive British Common Law. 

In recent years, Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lebanon, Singapore and India have reformed their related laws by repealing or superseding new legislation, joining the majority of the countries that don’t criminalise suicide.

Around 700,000 people die by suicide every year across the globe – in 2019, more than one in every 100 deaths globally was due to suicide. Every suicide also has an amplifying impact. For each person taking their life, 20 more attempt suicide, according to World Health Organisation (WHO).

The campaigners say these laws are part of the problem.

“Criminalising suicide does not deter people from taking their lives,” the report said stating that there is well-documented evidence of effective means to do so, from improved mental health and psychosocial support services, to restricting the means of suicide, such as pesticide control.

“Instead, criminalising suicide deters people from seeking help in support of their mental health (whether from family or friends, their wider community or from health professionals),” it continued. 

Feeding into the stigma

Besides the punishment they face, people who attempt suicide are also negatively impacted by the stigma around mental health. The laws criminalising suicide are also feeding into the stigma, the organisation said. 

Preventing, diagnosing and treating mental health conditions leading to suicide is difficult in these countries, as treatments that could be lifesaving are also hampered.

Official numbers of suicide do not reflect the real scope of the crisis in those countries where suicide is considered a crime.

In Kenya, one of the countries where suicide remains a criminal offence, the suicide rate has shown a rapid increase with 483 people killing themselves in the past three months before June. 

Dr Chitayi Murabula, President of the Kenya Psychiatric Association (KPA), told TRT World that the numbers are likely to be much higher, as many people who need help refrain from talking about their attempt.

“This is basically saying that suicide attempt is stigmatised both from the community level and religious level. The general atmosphere (around the issue) is shame, punishment and fear,” Dr Murabula said.

The people who are most affected by both criminalisation of suicide and the stigma around mental health are people from vulnerable countries feeling the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that took a serious toll on mental health globally. 

Over 79 percent of suicides occur in low and middle-income countries, according to a report by WHO in August 2021. 

In low-and-middle-income countries, vulnerable groups-women, sexual minorities and refugees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs)-are at high risk of suicidal ideation, attempts and deaths by suicide, a 2021 study said.

Source: TRT World