Suicide Is Not a Crime, By Banji Adesoji

This is calling on the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the National Assembly to strive towards a change in our laws, and ultimately seek for a decriminalisation of suicide in Nigeria.

If suicide be supposed a crime, ’tis only cowardice can impel us to it. If it be no crime, both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burden. – David Hume

In recent times in Nigeria, suicide has become a very popular subject of concern. From the medical doctor who jumped into the lagoon, now there is the more recent incidence of the 51 year old woman who attempted to take her own life, following the experience of being duped to the tune of N18.7 million. Fortunately, she failed and then government magic, Nigerian style set in. She was arrested, taken to court and asked to bail herself with the princely sum of N500,000. I am sure you are wondering what her offence was? Well, in the Nigerian criminal code, according to section 327, “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment of one year”. Also, the judge asked that the accused be evaluated at a mental health facility. If that is not adding petrol to fire, I don’t know of a more apt example.

Anyone surprised at this would need to join the queue, because as a mental health practitioner of 12 years, this is not my first or second time of hearing things like this. Seven years ago during my residency, the police brought a 16 year old boy to the emergency room of the hospital where I worked. He had tried to drown himself in a well some days earlier. The well happened to be shallow and he survived the attempt. The boy was taken away by the police, while waiting to be charged to court. While in jail, the policemen noticed he kept talking to himself. He had auditory hallucinations, which meant he heard the voice of an unseen person who was commanding him on what to do. The voice told him to jump into the well and he obeyed. The DPO took initiative and asked that he be brought to us for evaluation and treatment.

Why is attempted suicide still a crime in this country? To know this, we need to go back into history. According to the British common law until 1961, suicide was labelled a crime against the state. The logic then was that everyone’s body belongs to the state, and as such anyone terminating his or her body was thus destroying state property. However, in 1961, the suicide act was instituted under British law, with the act of attempted suicide becoming decriminalised. As a colony of the British empire, Nigeria inherited most of its laws from Great Britain. Alas, when Britain changed its laws on suicide, we had already gotten our independence. So, why have we refused to change the law on suicide 56 years after Independence?

In England, the reason for the decriminalisation of suicide was part of the change in perception towards mental health in general. Right now, mental health laws in Nigeria were last reviewed in the 1960s, even though the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APIN) has made repeated attempts to enact a new mental health bill through the National Assembly.

Suicide is a world wide phenomenon, occuring in every region and throughout lifespans. I have been involved in the care of nine-year olds who attempted suicide. It occurs in all genders, however more males complete suicide than women do, even though more women attempt suicide than men. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that a suicide occurs every 40 seconds somewhere in the world and that an estimated 800,000 people complete the act yearly. More than that number obviously attempts suicide yearly. The cause of suicide is not clearly known but it has been associated with mental illness (including depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders etc.), acute grief (like the woman in this story who experienced this when she was duped of a huge amount of money – N18.7 million), substance abuse (alcohol, cocaine etc.), and chronic pain, etc. In its 2014 report on preventing suicide, the WHO reported that suicide can be forestalled, even though this is a lot more difficult in low income countries like Nigeria, due to the dearth of resources and services.

So what impact does leaving suicide as a crime have? The first risk factor for a suicide is a previous attempt. And, most times in places where it is still seen as a crime, people don’t report suicide attempts for the fear of getting the persons involved arrested. Thus, whatever is causing the suicidal thoughts is not treated, thereby increasing the risk of another attempt, which may then become successful.

In England, the reason for the decriminalisation of suicide was part of the change in perception towards mental health in general. Right now, mental health laws in Nigeria were last reviewed in the 1960s, even though the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APIN) has made repeated attempts to enact a new mental health bill through the National Assembly. Those attempts have failed repeatedly but we are hopeful the next try would be successful. The need to decriminalise suicide as part of the review of colonial inherited legislation occurred 56 years ago, but however this is not too late to be embarked upon presently. This is for obvious reasons but chiefly because suicide is not a crime.

This is calling on the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the National Assembly to strive towards a change in our laws, and ultimately seek for a decriminalisation of suicide in Nigeria. Also, for those who might be inclined towards suicidal thoughts or attempts to complete the act, it is crucial that we reach out to and impress it upon them that whatever might be their circumstances, there is still some hope lurking over the horizon, no matter how far off this might seem. It only requires a bit more perseverance and patience through the difficulty to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They should be encouraged to speak out and seek help from the nearest mental health practitioners to them.

Banji Adesoji, a consultant psychiatrist, writes from Lagos.

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