High time to review law criminalising suicide

  • Letters
  • Thursday, 29 Nov 2018

THERE has been a spate of news reports on suicide attempts over the past few months, the most recent being the harrowing incident at KLCC Mall that, fortunately, ended with the rescue of the individual involved.

These incidents typically end up being the subject of extensive commentary on social media, where there is a mixture of empathy and condemnation directed towards the individuals involved. A lot of the recurring negative comments that can be seen here reveal an underlying ignorance on the nature of suicide. It is sad to note that many still subscribe to the common misconception that people attempting suicide are irresponsible attention seekers who are intentionally and wilfully causing unnecessary inconvenience to the police as well as the general public.

The existing body of evidence from the fields of psychiatry and psychology, however, clearly indicates otherwise. The majority of individuals who attempt suicide are struggling with some form of mental illness, and a substantial number among this group is likely to have been undiagnosed and untreated for these illnesses.

The World Health Organization estimates that the percentage worldwide for those who have been diagnosed and treated correctly as only slightly above 50%. In Malaysia, the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey indicates that 29.2% of the population were struggling with mental health issues – a significant increase from 12% in 2011.

There are many barriers that prevent people with mental illness from seeking and obtaining the professional help they desperately need. The most prevalent is the stigma and misconception surrounding mental illness in general. People who suffer from mental illness are often judged by their social circles and family members as being lazy, lacking willpower or morally deficient in some way. Many believe that these illnesses can be treated more effectively using spiritual or other alternative healing therapies, and would turn to them as the first course of action.

The reality, however, is that many mental illnesses, such as depression, are caused by imbalances or disorders in the endocrine system, hormones and neurotransmitters. Existing research shows that these imbalances can be effectively addressed with appropriate psychiatric medication. This is often complemented with psychotherapeutic approaches to address any contributing psychological issues. The combination of both approaches typically result in recovery rates of 80% or higher, particularly when the illness is detected and treated early on.

Those who attempt suicide may be prosecuted when they are rescued due to an existing legal statute, Section 309 of the Penal Code, which we inherited from the British. Many developed and even developing countries, such as India, have removed such statutes from their legal code. There is no existing evidence to indicate that such punishment will deter future attempts. In fact, most experts believe that the fear of being penalised for a failed attempt may have the unintended effect of spurring suicidal individuals to adopt drastic measures in their suicide attempts in order to maximise their chances of success.

The epidemiology of suicide reveals that such parasuicides are one of the strongest indicators of a future successful suicide attempt. It is therefore imperative that these individuals who survive suicide attempts be given immediate and appropriate medical and psychological treatment. Penalising them is unlikely to help in this respect, and is far more likely to exacerbate the emotional stress that they are already suffering.

The Befrienders KL would like to encourage all relevant stakeholders and persons of authority to initiate a review of Section 309 to ascertain its relevance and effectiveness in the current context of our society and existing medical evidence.

The Befrienders KL offers emotional support to those who are in distress or feeling suicidal. Please call 03-7956 8145 (24 hours) or email sam@befrienders.org.my.


Deputy chairman

The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur

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