SUICIDES happen when people are left to fall through gaps in the society and health systems.
Suicides affect our young, adolescents, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, doctors, teachers, men and women in uniform, people of faith and the elderly.
Suicide robs society of its most precious resource – people.
Although mental illness is recognised as one of the risk factors for suicide, overwhelming life stressors can tip the reserves for coping in people at risk.
Suicide is complex, tragic and results in further pain. What is undeniable is that the individual with suicidal behaviour is in need of help.
Section 309 of the Penal Code weighs a punishment of up to one year in prison, with or without a fine, on individuals who survive suicide. Yet this very same group of people are at increased risk of future suicide and therefore need the most help.
As long as the law persists as a relic from our past, survivors of suicide can be charged and tried in court. Being channelled into the criminal justice system may start with the victim being remanded without access to crisis care.
The delay in accessing care, especially specialist mental healthcare, could further increase the risk of suicide. In fact, the provisions of the Mental Health Act 2001 (Act 615) and Mental Health Regulations 2010, which enable mental health assessments and care, make more sense than Section 309 in this situation.
The individual who is charged is brought to a court hearing. Unfortunately, some of the survivors of suicide may be very ill and lack fitness to plead.
In such cases, a court order under Section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code for forensic mental health assessment would be carried out, which may last up to three months in an approved government psychiatric hospital. During this time, the person will be given care and thereafter returned to the system, i.e. prison. People who have been diagnosed with a mental illness will be reviewed by the prison psychiatric services. However, the prison environment may itself add further stress to the already distressed individual.
Even without a stay in prison, the looming gloom of a trial can take a toll on them. The charge itself deters them from further disclosing any suicidal thoughts.
Hence, one wonders how the idea of punishing people who are suffering and likely to have an illness is still acceptable.
Existing evidence shows that in the decriminalisation of suicide, suicide rates do not increase but reporting of suicide improves. With that, we as a society are able to get a clearer picture of the problem, which is needed to take the necessary rectification steps.
Moral values shape ethical principles, which in turn form the foundation of legal principles. Unfortunately, they take a while to catch up with current thinking.
Time and civilisation have provided us with the evidence that such arcane laws are not preventative but harmful to people at an economic and social expense.
With the increased conversation about decriminalisation of suicide – from the call by the Malaysian Psychiatric Association and Laman Minda last August to the commitment by policymakers like member of Parliament Hannah Yeoh and Selangor state assemblyman Michelle Ng – it is time for us to act.
We should examine whether our values and ethics are reflected by the laws that govern us. If not, it is time to have the conversation and share this message. Knock on doors, send a letter, e-mail or a social media status to the august halls of Parliament.
Suicide affects all of us regardless of where we live or how we look. It therefore becomes everybody’s business.
Decriminalisation of suicide is a step in making it okay to safely talk about suicide and mental health. With that, we would come closer to the day when no one would become a victim to suicide.
DR RAVIVARMA RAO PANIRSELVAM
Suicide Prevention Research Malaysia (Suprema)