AS a member of the Health Ministry’s Mental Health Advisory Council, I wish to voice my support for calls by various non-governmental organisations to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code under which attempted suicide is a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine, or both.
I fully share the view which has been expressed by several quarters that the said provision in the Penal Code is archaic and needs to be removed. The rationale for preserving this antiquated law inherited from the British is that its removal may encourage more suicide attempts. Yet to date, there are no data or case reports that indicate that decriminalisation increases suicides. In fact, suicide rates tend to decline in countries after decriminalisation.
It is imperative that the Malaysian government and the relevant authorities in this country pay heed to the urgent call by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to all member countries to review their legal provisions in relation to suicide and work towards decriminalising suicides.
In conjunction with World Suicide Prevention Day in 2014 the WHO released the World Suicide Report. The report followed the adoption of the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 by the World Health Assembly, which committed all 194 member states to reducing their suicide rates by 10% by 2020.
One of the key observations of this comprehensive report concerns the legal status of suicide and its effects on suicide prevention in these member states. Of the 192 independent countries and states investigated, 25 currently have specific laws and punishments for attempted suicide. This includes Malaysia.
Those who have suicide ideation should be counselled and treated instead of being punished. The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, a nonprofit organisation started in 1970 to provide emotional support to people feeling depressed or suicidal, has seen an increase in the number of contacts received, notably in the last few years.
The number of contacts almost doubled in six years, between
2014 and 2019, with the total number of contacts totalling 36,154 last year.
Most of the contacts came through their helpline (details at befrienders.org.my/centre-in-
malaysia). Calls have also increased after Aug 1, 2019, when eight main telcos in Malaysia under the initiative of Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission offered free calls to the helpline.
Almost one third of the contacts last year were from those aged between 15 and 29, with the majority being in their 20s. This number correlates with suicide being the second leading cause of death in the 15 to 29 age group, as reported by the WHO.
A large number of the callers talked about challenges related to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Almost a quarter of callers were facing these issues last year. The other two main issues were relationship and family problems.
Many of the distressed callers had thoughts about ending their lives. In 2019, 34% of them expressed having suicidal ideation. The percentage of suicidal callers in the last six years has ranged between 25% and 34%, which shows the importance of and need for suicide prevention efforts.
Very often, there is subtle insinuation both from within the family and externally from society that surviving family members were somehow responsible for the suicide victim’s death by not being supportive enough or not being sufficiently alert to the warning signs.
These suicide survivors often suffer inordinate amounts of guilt and self-blame; they also feel anger at the suicide victim whose self-inflicted death can sometimes be seen as a betrayal of the trust of their closest family members and friends.
Social stigma and gossip surrounding the death can further alienate the affected family at a critical time when social support is most needed. It is not uncommon to read media reports of families being torn apart in the wake of the suicide of one of their members.
The ripple effects of suicide are therefore far-reaching and can have devastating consequences for communities that are unprepared to deal with them.
Ongoing research into suicide has determined that this is a complex issue involving the interplay of a variety of psychological, social, biological, cultural and environmental factors.
A simple way of looking at it is to think of suicide as a last resort when someone is overwhelmed by a variety of burdens and stresses that he or she is no longer capable of bearing alone.
Studies have repeatedly shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide and, conversely, that having strong human bonds can be protective against it. Connectedness is therefore crucial to individuals who may be vulnerable to suicide, and reaching out to those who have become disconnected from others and offering them support and friendship may be a life-saving act.
Those in need of help can contact the Befrienders service nearest to them. For a full list of nationwide numbers and operating hours, go to befrienders.org.my/ centre-in-malaysia.
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE , Member, Mental Health Advisory Council Malaysia