Suicide Decriminalisation

Criminalising suicide doesn’t prevent people from acting on suicidal thoughts: it simply stops them from reaching out and seeking help in times of acute crisis.

Overview

Suicide remains a criminal offence in at least 20 countries around the world, with some laws dating back up to 160 years ago.

Criminalising suicide doesn’t prevent people from acting on suicidal thoughts: it simply stops them from reaching out and seeking help in times of acute crisis.

In fact, at the World Health Assembly in 2019 all health ministers agreed that decriminalising suicide was an effective way to reduce deaths by suicide when they approved the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Action Plan for 2021-2030.

We are working with the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), academic experts, legal experts and national campaigners around the world to fight for the decriminalisation of suicide in all countries, and to expand the understanding and adoption of rights-based approaches to suicide prevention.

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The Challenge

Around the world, 800,000 people die by suicide every year – that’s more than 1 in every 100 deaths (2019). For every person who dies, 20 more have attempted suicide.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. Those who experience discrimination – such as the elderly, the LGBTQI+ community, refugees and migrants, indigenous people and prisoners – are also more at risk.

Despite being a worldwide epidemic that affects all regions, over 77% of suicides occur in low and middle-income countries. But with the stigma (and legal consequences) surrounding suicide, both suicide and attempted suicide are often under-reported.

Encouragingly, many countries have made progress in their efforts to reduce the rate of death by suicide: in recent years legislation criminalising suicide has been successfully repealed or superseded by new legislation in the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Singapore and India.

In most countries, suicide is not a criminal offence – but any number is too many. In 20 countries, anyone who attempts suicide can be arrested, prosecuted, or punished by fines, and typically given one to three years in prison.

The criminalisation of suicide deters people from seeking help, further stigmatises mental ill health, and hampers efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions.

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.

Our Approach

We support national campaigners in their efforts to decriminalise suicide, and in the promotion of rights-based approaches to suicide prevention. We also strive to elevate the issue on the global agenda.

Together with the International Alliance for Suicide Prevention (IASP), we have supported the establishment of an international working group within the Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN), which brings together all those working to decriminalise suicide, including members from the 20 countries where suicidal behaviour is still illegal. The group has already attracted over 150 members who are working together to exchange their experiences and develop strategies to decriminalise suicide in their respective countries.

Get Involved

The Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN) is the world’s leading advocacy network for better global mental health. If you would like to get involved in GMHAN’s work on suicide decriminalisation, register to become a member of the network today.

Our work so far

In 2021 we worked with the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw programme, along with an international law firm, to conduct research into:

  • The legal structures in countries where suicide is a criminal offence;
  • The repercussions for those who attempt suicide in these countries (and for their friends and families);
  • The opportunities for advocacy and reform around the world.

On the back of this research, we published the report Decriminalising Suicide: Saving lives, reducing stigma as an informational tool for those campaigning for the decriminalisation of suicide.

“United for Global Mental Health’s commissioning of this report is both significant and timely as we strive to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal: Good Health and Wellbeing’s target to reduce suicides globally.”

– Professor Rory O’Connor, President, IASP

The launch of the report drew international media coverage, including as a prominent feature in The Guardian: “Suicide still treated as a crime in at least 20 countries, report finds”.

This report was informed by contributions from:

  • Professor Niall Boyce, (former editor) The Lancet Psychology
  • Professor Murad Khan, Dept. of Psychiatry at Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan
  • Professor Brian Mishara, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide, Ethical Issues, and End-of-life Practices, Universite du Quebec a Montreal
  • Professor Shekhar Saxena, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, Sneha
  • Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN)
  • International Alliance for Suicide Prevention (IASP)
  • The Mariwala Health Initiative
  • Taskeen Sehatmand Pakistan
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

Our impact

Together with our Decriminalising Suicide: Saving lives, reducing stigma report, we facilitated The Guardian’s coverage of the suicide law in Pakistan, hosted a webinar involving Senator Shahadat Awan from Pakistan, the WHO, the IASP and a policy maker from India. In Pakistan, Taskeen Health Initiative (our CSO partner) saw Senator Awan table a bill to decriminalise suicide in the senate – which has since been unanimously passed in two senate committees.

We continue to support campaigners in Pakistan to complete the full decriminalisation of suicide in the country.

“It is a public health issue, it is not an offence…The patient should be provided with treatment and not sent to prison.”

– Senator Shahadat Awan, Pakistan

What’s Next

With the support of the Global Mental Health Action Network working group along with the IASP, we are hoping to advance decriminalisation in several other partner countries this year, including Ghana, Malaysia and Guyana.

We are also working with the WHO on the drafting and dissemination of suicide decriminalisation guidelines, informed by consultation with experts and campaigners from our network.

“Suicide needs to be decriminalised to humanise people’s distress and society’s response to it.”

– Natalie Drew, Mental Health Policy & Service Development, WHO

Download Our Report: Decriminalising Suicide: Saving lives, reducing stigma

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