Should We Decriminalise Suicide Attempts or Retain Criminalisation As A Deterrent?

Aliu has been struggling with depression for nearly two years now. Some days are bad with intense feelings of loneliness and emotional pain, while some others are more manageable. He has a good job but feels very lonely and has no close confidant; he is not in any romantic relationship. Every day at the close of work, he dreaded returning to his empty apartment and being alone with his gloomy thoughts. Thus, he poured all his energy into work and often stayed back late. He could not find the words to explain what he was going through, but life was not supposed to be so miserable. He knew that he was not coping, and it seemed as if he was drowning but could not find the voice or energy to scream.

Over one weekend, he started toying with the idea of simply going to sleep and not waking up again and thought of ending his own life. He bought some chemicals to take but just after taking them, he sent a message to his brother who rushed over to his house and took him to hospital.

He was on admission for a few weeks, but he survived. He was informed that he had been going through a depressive episode and placed on treatment. Within a few weeks, he was back to his formerly happy self and the dark clouds disappeared. He was very grateful for the second chance and resolved to encourage everyone else who may be suicidal not to act upon it but to seek professional help. He knew he had been extremely lucky to have survived.

Burden of the problem

One million people intentionally take their own lives every year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which translates to one suicide death every 40 seconds. Furthermore, attempted suicide is 20 times more prevalent. This means, 20 million attempted suicides occur every year. The implication of these numbers is that every two seconds, someone somewhere on this planet attempts to intentionally take their own life. It is therefore not a surprise that the WHO declared suicide a public health emergency in 2012. Suicide is preventable and everyone who attempts it needs urgent help and not punishment. But our extant law in Nigeria disagrees.


The Law and attempted suicide

The current Criminal Code, in Chapter 27, Section 327 of Nigeria states that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year”. Unfortunately, Nigeria remains one of the few remaining countries that still criminalises attempted suicide, instead of recognising it as a cry for help and occurring frequently against the backdrop of mental ill-health – especially depression. But the law in Nigeria recommends that Mr Aliu above, should be tried and sentenced to one year imprisonment for attempting to take his own life.


Should we continue to criminalise attempted suicide?

Some argue that the benefit of criminalising attempted suicide is to serve as a deterrent by coupling it with punitive legislation that may dissuade those who may be considering suicide to jettison the idea. They argue that decriminalising it will be akin to encouraging those with such thoughts to attempt it.

However, global evidence shows that criminalising attempted suicide has not reduced rates of suicide in such countries compared to countries where it is now decriminalised. Indeed, rates tend to come down following decriminalisation.

Furthermore, it is more likely to drive persons who are suicidal to go underground for fear of arrest and prosecution. It can also motivate them to ensure they succeed with the attempt.

Even more importantly, we know that the majority of those who will attempt suicide are persons with background mental disorders, especially those experiencing depression. They need help and treatment and NOT punishment. A punitive legislative approach is inappropriate as it is inconceivable to propose punishing someone with a fracture or hypertension for negligence in looking after their health and criminalising it as a misdemeanour that is punishable with one year imprisonment. If this scenario sounds ridiculous, it is similarly unreasonable to consider such an approach for someone who is depressed and who makes a suicidal attempt.


Way forward

This debate further highlights the need for continued mental health awareness creation and the need for urgent efforts to decriminalise attempted suicide, in tandem with global best practices. It should be seen as a medical problem necessitating treatment and not as a crime. We need all hands-on deck to continue to push this narrative until positive action ensues. The Asido Foundation joins other stakeholders to advocate strongly for decriminalisation of attempted suicide in Nigeria.

We call on the Attorney General of the Federation, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN to use his immense goodwill and progressive leaning to push for the decriminalization of attempted suicide in Nigeria. All state attorney generals should also engage with their respective state Houses of Assembly to also do the needful at the state level.

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