Decriminalizing Suicide Attempts Paves Way For Those At Risk To Seek Help

Decriminalizing Suicide Attempts Paves Way For Those At Risk To Seek Help
Decriminalizing an ‘attempt to commit suicide’ in Pakistan can be hailed as a right step in the right direction, however in the face of glaring challenges, it might be a step among many that ought to be taken to resolve an alarming issue of grave socio-legal implications. In an era of serious commitments being undertaken by States in acknowledging and resolving mental health issues owing, inter alia, to the exponential increase in suicide rates throughout the world, Pakistan largely remains on the forefront to curb it by penalizing any such attempt.

Section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, states
“Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

It wouldn’t be outlandish to view a State’s social progression or direction from the laws enacted by its legislature. Where we have witnessed an inclination in the recent past towards enactment of progressive laws in Pakistan, some still remain majorly left unattended. These unattended and outmoded laws may contribute to larger problems prevalent in our society. Penalization of suicide attempt in Pakistan was an example of such law, long existing as a colonial legacy.

Finally, our legislature has acted and resultantly, The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2022 was passed on December 23rd, 2022, repealing the said provision and abolishing the penalization of attempted suicide in the country. The intent of the legislature is highlighted in the amendment’s statement of objects and reasons holding that: “the issue of suicide ought to be dealt with as a disease and should be treated as one.”

Historically, in the 19th century, criminalization of suicide was prevalent across jurisdictions. However, in the last 50 years, there has been a complete shift towards decriminalizing - with only 20 of the 192 countries and states penalizing attempted suicide. In The World Health Organization’s Mental Health Action Plan of 2013-30, State parties agreed to decriminalize suicide across the globe. Pakistan, as a signatory to the Action Plan, had previously in 2017 attempted to repeal the colonial penal provision, however despite the bill being unanimously adopted by the Senate and the Council of Islamic Ideology, it was not passed by the National Assembly.

The rationale behind the criminalization of attempted suicide is the belief that the law must operate as a deterrent – purporting to make an example out of the ‘criminal’ to deter any ‘potential criminal minded’ and safeguard society. While the deterrence theory might be effective in dealing with heinous crimes, what the propagators of this theory seem to miss is that the desire to death or self-killing cannot be deterred by the fear of punishment. The question arises as to how can we ensure that a person willing to take their own life will not be compelled to do so while being imprisoned and confronted with an even more unpleasant situation (Fergus McNeill, When Punishment is Rehabilitation, pp. 4195-4206, 2012). The same view was rightfully considered by the Senate in its statement of objects for enacting the amendment, stating that “punishment is meant to create deterrence for a healthy person, not for a mentally disturbed person.”

Decriminalization, in effect, remedies a major obstacle in reporting cases of attempted suicides.

Another aspect to the criminalization was the prohibition of committing suicide in Islam. The Holy Quran refers to such acts as self-murder and strongly condemns them, “you should not kill yourself because God has been merciful to you” (4:29). While there is a consensus as to the status of a sin attributed to the commission of suicide in Islam, however no penalty or punishment has been prescribed in the Holy Quran for an attempt to commit suicide.

In Pakistan, ironically enough, committing suicide is not an offence [Mst. Agha Jan Ahmed v. American Life Insurance Company Pakistan Ltd, (2007 CLC 1237)], but an ‘attempt’ to commit suicide was. The Council of Islamic Ideology originally opined that the punishment should be upheld and those with mental illness should be exempted. However, during the debate, it was highlighted that those with mental illness are already exempted from any punishment in the PPC. Therefore, after detailed deliberations and discussions, the Senate ‘unanimously’ approved the bill. Other Muslim countries like Iran, Qatar, the UAE and Indonesia have also decriminalized attempt to commit suicide.

Decriminalization, in effect, remedies a major obstacle in reporting cases of attempted suicides. The majority of suicide attempts would previously go unreported in an attempt to evade prosecution, harassment from public officials and avoid the stigmas attached. Resultantly, there exists an inaccurate account of the actual number of suicide attempts in Pakistan, and a tainted projection of reality takes away from the seriousness this issue deserves. According to an old report of the World Health Organization (WHO), the estimated rate of suicide in Pakistan in 2019 was 8.9 per 100,000 people. In other words, around 19,331 people killed themselves in 2019. Although, it is widely believed among experts that the actual number is much higher.

The decriminalization of attempt to commit suicide will certainly encourage psychologically distraught people to seek help, and at-risk individuals will be better able to obtain the care they require. Encouragement of reporting suicide attempt cases will aid in collecting and gathering accurate data, and can thus facilitate in helping those who may be at risk. This, in turn, will pave the way for treating suicide as a public health issue rather than a criminal act, and further on through legislations and policies, effective measures can be taken to curb its rising growth.

The decriminalization of suicide attempt is a progressive and a much needed step. It is crucial to understand that decriminalization does not imply legitimizing or legalizing suicide. The aim is not to encourage suicide, but to discourage prosecution of those who have attempted it by providing them with the necessary care required. These individuals do not necessarily need to have a psychiatric illness but they are certainly undergoing severe distress, and the threat of prosecution only exacerbates their suffering.

Decriminalization will be a major stepping stone in the prevention of suicide and providing access to mental health services to those who are in need. The State, by taking the first step, has displayed its will to address the glaring mental health issues and it is hoped that further progressive legislation will follow suit in according it the seriousness and care it deserves.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad and currently works as a Judicial Law Clerk at the Islamabad High Court.