Punishable by fines and prison, suicide is still considered a crime in many countries

‘It can prevent people receiving the support they need for their mental health’

Suicide is still considered a crime in 20 countries, punishable by fines of thousands of pounds and up to three years in prison, research has revealed.

In many nations children can be prosecuted for attempted suicide and in Nigeria, children as young as seven can be arrested, tried and prosecuted, said the report by United for Global Mental Health, a group calling for decriminalisation. A further 20 countries make suicide punishable under sharia law.

In four of the countries in the report – the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana and Kenya – the will of someone judged to have killed themselves may be discounted. "Criminalisation of suicide is counterproductive, it does not deter people from taking their own lives," said Sarah Kline, co-founder of United for Global Mental Health. "It does deter people from seeking help in a moment of acute crisis and it can prevent people receiving the support they need for their mental health."

Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a psychiatrist in Chennai, India and founder of a suicide prevention organisation, has seen the impact of laws that criminalise suicide. She believes legislation contributes to stigma and discrimination around mental health. "These laws are not theoretical. They directly affect the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable countries," she said, adding that the legislation is in middle- and low-income countries where 77 per cent of suicides occur.

One suicide survivor from the Sindh region of Pakistan, who asked to remain anonymous, said police came to her house to arrest her. "I felt guilty and stupid for attempting suicide," she said.

“Plus what made it worse was the way the police dealt with it. They humiliated my dad just so they could get money out of him. [The police officer’s] words were, ‘either your daughter is going to jail or you are’.” Her father ending up paying a bribe to stop further action.

In recent years suicide legislation has been successfully repealed or superseded by new legislation in some countries.

In the Cayman Islands, suicide was decriminalised in December, 2020 after a campaign highlighted that only 5 per cent of children and young people at risk were seeking help due to stigma caused in part by the criminalisation of suicide. It made the case that suicide is a mental health issue and never a crime.

Suicide remains a leading cause of death worldwide. Every year, more people die as a result of suicide than HIV, malaria, breast cancer or even war. In 2019, more than 700,000 people died by suicide: one in every 100 deaths. For every person who dies, 20 more have attempted suicide. – Guardian

Get support:
Pieta House, 1800 247 247, text HELP to 51444.
Samaritans, 116 123, jo@samaritans.ie.
Suicide Or Survive, 1890 577 577, info@suicideorsurvive.ie.
Aware, 1800 80 48 48, supportmail@aware.ie.
Childline, 1800 666 666, text 5101.
HSE Drugs and Alcohol helpline, 1800 459 459, helpline@hse.ie.
Traveller Counselling Service, (01) 868 5761, 086 308 1476, info@travellercounselling.ie.
HSE Crisis Text Service, Text 50808.
St Patrick's Mental Health Services, (01) 249 3333, info@stpatsmail.com.
Alone, 0818 222 024, hello@alone.ie