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.

Suicide: The Challenge

703,000 people die by suicide every year – and for every person who dies, 20 more attempt suicide. This is a worldwide epidemic, a serious global public health crisis affecting every region on earth. 

But even these shocking statistics don’t tell the full story: the stigma and legal consequences surrounding suicide mean both suicide and attempted suicide are often under-reported. 

Suicide is having a particularly alarming impact on young people: it is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. People who face discrimination – such as the elderly, the LGBTQI+ community, refugees and migrants, indigenous people and prisoners – are also more at risk.

While suicide is an issue everywhere, over 79% of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries. Suicide is highly stigmatized and may be misclassified due to laws that criminalise suicide. This prevents countries from recognising it is a public health concern and tackle it effectively. 

DECRIMINALISING SUICIDE

In at least 23 countries, anyone who attempts suicide can be arrested, prosecuted, or punished by fines or even 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.

One simple step to help reduce suicide would be to decriminalise it in every country in the world. Progress is being made. In recent years, legislation criminalising suicide has been successfully repealed or superseded by new and more humane legislation in Guyana, Pakistan, Ghana, Malaysia, the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Singapore and India. 

“Suicide criminalisation restricts governments from taking positive actions towards suicide prevention…. in the first 10 months after suicide was decriminalised and the police role changed, the suicide rate in Singapore dropped significantly.” 

– Professor Brian Mishara, Founder, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide, Ethical Issues and End-of Life Practices (CRISE)

 

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SUICIDE DECRIMINALISATION: OUR APPROACH

UnitedGMH launched its Suicide Decriminalisation campaign at the end of 2020. We’ve since successfully supported the decriminalisation of suicide in Pakistan, Ghana and Guyana. 

We believe everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of mental health. But this cannot happen while legislation is in place that discriminates against people in acute crisis and prevents them from seeking help. 

With UnitedGMH support, our national partners advocate to decriminalise suicide in their countries. We help them generate media coverage and provide them with: 

  • resources
  • policy positions
  • messaging
  • connections with partners that have successfully decriminalised suicide in their countries
  • opportunities to engage their policymakers on the issue and identify champions. 

We strive to push the issue up the global agenda. For example, we facilitated the inclusion of suicide decriminalisation across SIDS nations as a commitment in the Bridgetown Declaration, which was issued at the SIDS Ministerial Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health in 2023. 

OUR WORK SO FAR

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

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

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

The launch of the report drew international media coverage, including a prominent feature in the Guardian. Professor Rory O’Connor, president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), said: “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.”

Decriminalising suicide in Pakistan

Our advocacy efforts played a significant part in decriminalising suicide in Pakistan – a landmark decision featured in the Guardian. We hosted a webinar on the issue involving Senator Shahadat Awan from Pakistan, representatives from the WHO and the IASP, and a policy maker from India. And thanks to the work of our partner Taskeen Health Initiative, Senator Awan tabled a bill to decriminalise suicide in the senate – which was then unanimously passed in two senate committees. 

“[Suicide] 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

It was part of a story of progress in a variety of countries – a story we helped make sure was covered in the Guardian and Aljazeera.  

Suicide decriminalisation efforts around the world

As well as the breakthrough in Pakistan, we advanced decriminalisation efforts in several other partner countries in 2023, including Ghana, Malaysia and Guyana, helping bring about legislative changes and establishing national suicide prevention strategies. 

In collaboration with organisations such as the IASP, and with the support of the Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN), we helped set up a suicide decriminalisation working group to drive these efforts forward. 

We worked with the WHO on drafting and disseminating 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

WHAT’S NEXT

In 2024 and beyond, we’ll focus on decriminalising suicide in the countries with the greatest potential for change. These include Sierra Leone, Uganda, Tanzania, Caribbean countries in light of Guyana’s recent move to decriminalisation, and Nigeria, which has been influenced by Ghana’s decision to decriminalise in 2023. 

In Nigeria, we’re a part of the suicide prevention advocacy working group and have helped generate national media coverage on decriminalising suicide there

In Sierra Leone, which is poised to update its mental health legislation and replace its outdated 1902 Lunacy Act, we’re working with partners to decriminalise suicide through the new Mental Health Act. 

In the Caribbean, we’re focusing our efforts on the only remaining countries that continue to criminalise suicide – Grenada, the Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago, and St Lucia. 

In May 2024, we hosted a workshop with civil society, national and global organisations to build the capacity of Caribbean national partners to advocate for the decriminalisation of suicide. 

The workshop helped mobilise CSO partners, mental healthcare professionals, people with lived experience of mental ill health, and young people from the Caribbean to form a regional coalition to decriminalise suicide. The coalition will help develop national advocacy strategies and support campaigns to achieve suicide decriminalisation across the Caribbean. 

“Our legislation (on suicide decriminalisation) dated back to the 1930s, which was quite irrelevant for modern era medical legislation and we wanted to change that.” – Hon Dr Frank Anthony, Minister of Health, Guyana

We are continuing to work with the Thomson Reuters Foundation to update our suicide decriminalisation report to reflect changes in legislation since 2021. The updated report will be launched on World Suicide Prevention Day in September 2024.  

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.

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

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