By Alick Ponje
The last two years have seen an unprecedented rise of suicide cases in the country with experts calling the crisis an epidemic required to be tackled with all the obtainable resources.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that globally more than 700,000 people die due to suicide every year and that for every case, there are many more people who attempt self-annihilation.
According to the global health agency, 77 percent of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries, such as Malawi, mainly due to social and economic problems.
Meanwhile, government, through the Ministry of Health, has indicated a Bill to address the epidemic, considered one of the most serious public health problems in Malawi, will be tabled in Parliament soon, possibly February.
A suicide prevention strategy will follow, according to the ministry’s Assistant Director of Clinical Services responsible for mental health, Dr Michael Udedi.
In an interview yesterday, Udedi said the Bill is currently with the Ministry of Justice and that from what he has gathered, it is likely to be tabled during the next meeting of Parliament.
“The Bill has several components. One is about the provision of mental health services in the country because the one we are using is very old. The new one takes on board rights of people with mental disorders,” Udedi said.
There have been concerns that criminalising attempted suicide does not help matters apparently because it further ostracises victims who fail to access the necessary help to deal with their issues.
Udedi disclosed that the issue of decriminalising attempted suicide has been considered in the Bill.
“We are lobbying for that and we hope it will pass. Suicide is a mental health problem, but in the Penal Code, it is taken as a criminal offence,” the mental health expert said.
The tabling of the Mental Health Bill will follow the review of the Mental Health Policy of 2001-04, which occurred in April last year amid the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
Campaigners argue that criminalising attempted suicide prevents people from seeking the help they need and that such laws directly affect the most vulnerable of society.
The current policy guides decentralisation, integration, formulation of community-based programmes and provision of quality care and development of necessary human resources.
“[It] sets out a platform for comprehensive i m p l e m e n t a t i o n mechanisms to ensure efficient and effective provision of comprehensive, integrated responsive quality mental health services.
“The policy also sets out to address the social determinants of mental illness, prevention, advocacy campaigns, treatment and monitoring mechanisms for mental health services,” a section of the document states.
However, various commentators have been faulting government for apparently failing to do enough to ensure mental health services are easily and readily available.
An organisation that has been pushing for improved mental health services and, in particular, decriminalisation of suicide, Connect Plus says the enacting of the Mental Health Bill is long overdue. Resource Institute,
On criminalising suicide, the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer Dennis Mwafulirwa said such an element in the Penal Code, where it says “any person who attempts to kill himself shall be guilty of a misdemeanour”, is counterproductive.
“We must really look at reasons that force people to think of committing suicide. WHO categorises suicide as a health issue. Many people who kill or attempt to kill themselves go through stress.
“When someone is fine mentally, they manage to go through tough times which they experience. When they fail to pass through that moment, it means their mental health is not fine. Such people need help,” Mwafulirwa said.
He further wondered why Malawi still criminalises attempted suicide when several other countries repealed the law and put in place measures of assisting people who attempt to kill themselves other than incarcerating them.
“Let me give an example of malaria. It is a preventable disease. We urge people to sleep under mosquito nets. Why don’t we punish them when they fall sick and eventually get better?” Mwafulirwa queried.
WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan (2021-2030) highlights decriminalising suicide as an important target, seeking to end criminalisation, reduce stigma and ensure that there are sufficient services available for those that need them.
And according to mental health experts, suicide is an indicator of mental health and not criminal behaviour; hence, criminalising attempted suicide is wrong.
Mwafulirwa says decriminalising suicide is an important step towards eradicating the stigma associated with seeking mental health services.
“There are cases where one tries their best to remain strong, mentally stable, but still fails. For instance, someone lost five relatives to Covid in a short space of time. That can disturb them and they may not see the reason for living. If they survive a suicide attempt, the best we can do is to offer them support other than sending them to prison,” he said.
Mwafulirwa added that when decriminalised, suicide will be considered a public health issue and not a criminal act, resulting in reduced stigma which will encourage psychologically vulnerable people to seek help and obtain the required care.
He further stressed the need to populate spaces with messages that provide sufficient information for suicide prevention and where people can access services.