What is the current situation?
Around the world, 700,000 people die by suicide every year – in 2019, more than one in every 100 deaths globally was due to suicide. In most countries suicide is not a criminal offence. But in 20 countries it is.
In these countries those who have attempted suicide can be arrested, prosecuted and punished by fines and typically one to three years in prison. Assuming one of the main intentions is to deter people from taking their life – alongside other reasons such as religious tradition – the evidence shows criminalisation is counterproductive. Many countries have made progress in their efforts to reduce the rates of deaths by suicide. For example, in recent years legislation criminalising suicide has been successfully repealed or superseded by new legislation in the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lebanon, Singapore and India.
Why does decriminalising suicide matter?
Criminalising suicide does not deter people from taking their lives – 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 is a significant factor in stigmatising mental health. It hampers efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat mental health conditions. In sum, criminalising suicide prevents people from seeking help, particularly in a moment of acute crisis, and receiving the emergency and lifesaving treatment they need to improve their mental health.
What does our report show?
Laws criminalising suicide tend to be exceptionally old, often originally introduced by colonial powers. Seven of the countries reviewed had suicide legislation dating back between 90 and 160 years. These laws were written when suicide or attempted suicide was considered a crime against the state, as well as against religion. Furthermore, these laws were written at a time when mental health was grossly misunderstood and human rights abuses regarding mental health were commonplace, and in many countries still are.
Across nearly all of the countries researched is that the punishment for attempting suicide is imprisonment. This can often present a barrier to being provided with support and treatment in the local community by mental health professionals (in accordance with the recommendations of the WHO in such situations).
In most of the countries covered in this report, it is possible for children to be prosecuted for attempted suicide. This is because a young child (people under the age of 18 as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) can be prosecuted for a criminal offence in some countries. For example, although there are special provisions for children under the age of 12 years, it is legally possible for children as young as 7 years of age in Nigeria to be arrested, tried, and prosecuted. If the repeal of suicide legislation is to be done in increments, then ending the prosecution of children for attempting suicide should be prioritised.
It is possible to be punished after death by suicide. In four of the countries studied for this report – the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana, and Kenya – the will of the deceased may be challenged, leading to invalidation if someone is judged to have died by suicide, with complications also possible in Malawi. The invalidation of a will could have serious implications for those who the deceased intended to benefit upon their death. Beyond the emotional stress of such a delay, it could be very costly for loved ones, and cause significant delays in accessing the assets allocated in the will.
Laws relating to the criminalising of suicide are rarely enforced and are commonly at the minor end of the crimes governed by the legal system, and often defined as misdemeanours. This then raises the question: why have such laws at all? In the majority of countries covered in this report, attempted suicide is considered a misdemeanour and in five of the countries there have been minimal or no recent court cases for attempted suicide. The mere presence of the illegality of suicide within the law has three maort impacts (i) suicide remains hidden and so the true scale is not known; (ii) suicide is not treated as a public health issue and people are not able to receive the support they need; and (iii) the stigma surrounding mental health continues.
There is a global commitment to decriminalise suicide. Reductions in the number of deaths by suicide is the measure by which improvements in mental health are tracked according to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2015-2030. Moreover, decriminalising suicide was agreed as an effective measure to help end deaths by suicide by all health ministers when they approved the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Action Plan for 2021-2030 (in May 2021).