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 and he is not in any 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 late. He couldn’t 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 couldn’t find the voice or energy to scream.
Over a weekend, he started toying with the idea of simply going to sleep and not waking up again and thoughts 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 had disappeared. He was very grateful for the second chance and resolved to encouraging everyone else who may be suicidal not to act upon it but to seek for professional help. He knew he had been extremely lucky to have survived.
Burden of the problem
1 million people intentionally take their own lives every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which translates to 1 suicide death every 40 seconds. Furthermore, attempted suicide is 20 times more prevalent, so, 20 million attempted suicides occur every year. The implication of these numbers is that every 2 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 misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for one year”. Unfortunately, Nigeria remains one of the few remaining countries that still criminalizes attempted suicide, instead of recognizing it as a cry for help and occurring frequently against the backdrop of mental ill-health – especially depression. But the Nigerian Law recommends that Mr Aliu above, should be tried and sentenced to a 1-year imprisonment for attempting to take his own life.
A Positive Attempt at Reform But Still Unhelpful
The Honorable Member of the House of Representatives, Mr Francis Waive proposes that the one-year jail term be replaced with compulsory community service and counseling as punishment for attempted suicide. As well intentioned as this revision appears to be, it is still premised on the faulty foundation that it is wrong, and a bad thing to do that requires some punishment. Thus, the wordings are very clear as to its intent as seen from its title: ‘A Bill for an Act to Amend the Criminal Code Act Cap C38 LFN 2004, to Provide for a More Rational Punishment for the Offence of Attempted Suicide, and For Related Matters.’
It aims to expunge the ‘imprisonment for one year’ and replace it with ‘compulsory counselling and community service for a period not less than six months.’ It goes further to explain that it aims for a ‘more rational punishment that is both curative and punitive.’
This is flawed, despite the good intention. We know that the majority of those who will attempt suicide are mentally ill, especially suffering from depression. They need help and treatment and not punishment. Do we punish someone with a fracture or hypertension with compulsory community service? Why isolate someone with depression who attempts suicide in that context for community service? The compulsory treatment may be acceptable as an attempt to help but there should be no basis for punitive measures here.
This debate further highlights the need for continued mental health awareness creation and the need for urgent signing into law, of the mental health bill, that aims to guarantee a legislation that protects the dignity of affected persons, assures them of the right to quality mental health services that is in tandem with global best practices.
It is poignant to note that the topic for the Asido Foundation’s national Jemila Abubakar Memorial Essay Competition which ended in December 2021 with winners announced on the 19thJanuary 2022 was on “Criminalization of attempted suicide in Nigeria: To Stay or To Go?”. It certainly needs to go, as it should be seen as a medical problem necessitating treatment and not a crime. We need all hands on deck to continue to push this narrative until positive action ensues.
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 24th February 2022