By Sarah Kline, CEO United for Global Mental Health
One in every 100 deaths worldwide is the result of suicide. And some 700,000 people around the world die by suicide every year; for every one person who dies, it is estimated that 20 more have attempted to take their own lives.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day: many countries have reduced the the number of deaths by suicide by working to make mental health support more readily available for those who need it. Yet in some 20 countries suicide and suicidal behaviour remains a criminal offence and individuals who attempt to take their own lives risk severe penalties for themselves and even their families.
Punishments vary, with penalties ranging from 1-3 years imprisonment, and fines of thousands of US dollars. In some countries it is even possible to be punished after death. In the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana, and Kenya, the will of the deceased may be challenged and potentially invalidated if the person is judged to have died by suicide. In others, such as Nigeria, legislation allows for children as young as 7 years old to be arrested, tried and prosecuted.
What impact does this have?
The criminalisation of suicide is counter productive. It does not deter people from taking their lives. It does, however, deter them from seeking help in a moment of acute crisis and receiving the support they need. Punishment and public shaming only serves to obstruct recovery and access to support for those who need it most. Imprisonment comes with its own damaging mental health consequences, and treating those who attempt suicide as criminals simply exacerbates the stigma around mental health and deters people seeking help.
So what needs to be done?
For many of the countries where suicide remains illegal, legislation is in place as a legacy of laws passed in the Colonial period, sometimes dating back up to 160 years. This shows a clear lack of legislative reform in line with international human rights and updated according to the latest understanding of how best to support people with poor mental health.
In recent years suicide legislation has been successfully repealed or superseded by new legislation in the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lebanon and India. It is now time for other countries to follow suit. Legislation relating to mental health must be modernised as a matter of urgency - laws that criminalise suicide must be repealed and replaced by legislation that is fit for purpose, reflects society’s approach to mental health today and provides support not stigma in times of greatest need.
Our new report, produced with the International Association for the Prevention of Suicide, Decriminalising Suicide: Reducing Stigma, Saving Lives, surveys what the law says in each of the countries where suicide remains a criminal offence, and whether there are efforts to reform this legislation. It also examines where, why and what are the implications of the criminalisation of suicide, providing up to date evidence on the impact of suicide illegality. There are 20 country profiles that can be used as part of campaigning efforts to change legislation.
We have a historic opportunity to press for reform. Leaders around the globe have agreed to reduce suicide by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and governments have committed to decriminalising suicide through their endorsement of the WHO Global Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2030. Lawmakers and governments not only have a legal obligation under various international human rights treaties, but also a moral obligation to support those with poor mental health.
Achieving the decriminalisation of suicide globally will be a major step forward for mental health. It will help to protect the most vulnerable and ensure that everyone, everywhere who needs support for their mental health can access it, free of stigma and discrimination.