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Mental Health For All webinar: The case for decriminalising suicide

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Mental Health For All webinar: The case for decriminalising suicide

Please note: This article contains reference to and discussion of suicide. If you feel you need support with your mental health please ensure you seek the appropriate support from your local health care facility, local community group that specialises in mental health or (if available) a national helpline. We have listed national helplines where we know they are available here


On 26 October, our #MHForAll webinar invited panelists to discuss suicide decriminalisation, why it matters and what is being done to reform legislation. The speakers for the session included:


  • Sarah Johnson, The Guardian (Chair) 
  • Wendy Orchard, Executive Director, IASP
  • Natalie Drew, Mental Health Policy & Service Development, WHO
  • Prof. Joseph Osafo, University of Ghana/IASP Special Working Group
  • Senator Shahadat Awan, Senate of Pakistan 
  • Dr. Soumitra Pathare, Center for MH Law & Policy, India


Throughout the session, our panellists emphasised how the criminalisation of suicide continues to be a key issue across the field of global mental health. Earlier this year, governments around the world committed to working on suicide decriminalisation through the adoption of the updated Mental Health Action Plan, but as outlined in UnitedGMH’s recent report, suicide remains a criminal offence in 20 countries around the world.


WHO’s Natalie Drew explained how legislation against attempted suicide shows a clear lack of compassion or justice, which ultimately dehumanises those who most need support. Rather than acting as a deterrent, criminalisation in fact compounds the issue of suicide. As Joseph Osafo said, “Why do you want to add insult to injury?...The person is in distress...They need help, they don’t need incarceration.”


In many countries campaigners, advocates, and policy-makers are already working to update, amend or repeal legislation. In particular Senator Shahadat Awan outlined recent efforts in Pakistan, where last week the Senate passed a bill seeking to decriminalise suicide. Progress has also been seen in India where, as Dr. Soumitra Pathare explained, work has been underway since 2010. This includes the adoption of the Mental Health Care Act 2017, which states that despite what other law might say, those who attempt suicide will be assumed to be suffering from severe distress and treated as such. 


In addition to this national level work, our speakers emphasised the need for global efforts to mobilise around this urgent issue. As Natalie Drew explained, the WHO has a part to play by working to propose strategies to overcome resistance, providing technical assistance, supporting efforts to undertake comprehensive assessment, and analysing the legal and policy landscape. Civil society and networks, such as the Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN), can also work to support coalitions and lobby groups in countries. These groups play a critical role in conducting advocacy campaigns and putting pressure on governments to take action on issues, as highlighted by Wendy Orchard’s outlining of the work being done by the International Association for Suicide Prevention.


From all of our speakers the message was clear - a holistic approach to decriminalisation, which centres the voices of those with lived experience of mental health issues and aknowledges the complexities around suicide, is needed. This will be critical not only to suicide prevention strategies, but also to preventing marginalisation and ensuring that everyone, everywhere, is able to access the support they need. 


You can watch the full recording of the webinar here, and find out more via the links below.


Join the Network and its Suicide Decriminalisation Working Group

- Join the GMHAN Linkedin page

Reducing Stigma, Saving Lives - Suicide Decriminalisation Report 

- News report on Pakistan passing the suicide bill

- India’s Mental Health Act

- International Association for Suicide Prevention website

- WHO’s Suicide Prevention resources