Attempted suicide should be decriminalised

Dear Editor,

The current primitive, outdated and repressive suicide law is wasting space in the law books of Guyana and we need to get rid of it.

According to Cap. 8:01 96 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act of the Laws of Guyana, “Everyone who attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and liable to imprisonment for two years”. This law was drafted over 100 years ago when mental health experts did not know as much about the psychological disorders that drive people to commit suicide as they do today. The whole world, including Guyana, now knows about a whole range of mental health issues that nobody knew about when the law was passed. Suicide attempts are triggered by a whole list of mental health issues like schizophrenia, clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, premenstrual syndrome and others.

The struggle to meet daily commitments, as well as the inconsistencies amongst our politicians within the main political parties, also contribute to high stress levels and high tension situations among our impressionable young people. We have all  heard stories of domestic violence and escalating frustrations leading to women taking their own lives. People who have suffered paralyzing injuries or feel they cannot live with the shame of having contracted certain diseases such as HIV/AIDS, sometimes also decide to commit suicide.

Whether it is mental health issues, a physical ailment or a traumatic event, it is obvious that people who are experiencing any of these difficulties and are not equipped to handle them, ought to always have someone to call on, whether it is a friend or relative, a religious leader or trained personnel manning a hotline.

My point is that whatever their issues might be, persons who attempt suicide are not criminals and do not deserve to be treated as such. But as long as this antiquated law is in effect, these persons will be criminalized unnecessarily. This makes no sense; we know better so we must do better and get rid of it.

I did not for one minute forget that violent, depraved criminals commit savage murders and rapes on old people, women and children, then try to kill themselves to escape capture and punishment. The suicide law should inflict the maximum penalty on this type of criminal alone, not victims of mental disorders like stress and depression.

Suicide is a big social problem in Guyana. A 2014 World Health Organisation report stated that the suicide rate in Guyana is five times higher than the world average, with 44.2 per 100,000 people, and this does not even record suicide attempts reported and unreported.

Official estimates state that 1,500 to 2,000 persons attempt suicide each year in Guyana, which works out to about one attempt every five hours. As a nation, we have a lot of work to do to bring down this rate; this is serious business.

Let’s face it; if we keep an outdated, ineffective suicide law on the books, its presence there tells the world that we are not serious about dealing with our suicide problem. Since it would be absurd to prosecute all the persons who attempt suicide, the law simply cannot be enforced.

As a patriot, I am always against anything that puts my country in a bad light. The WHO report exposed Guyana’s exceptionally high suicide rate and the eyes of the world are on us. Why are we keeping a prehistoric suicide law? Can’t we change it to suit modern times? Are we uninformed? Are we lazy?

It is unwise to keep an antiquated law that is being partly enforced and brings great hardship to the suicide victims and the families who have to find money for lawyers which they may ill afford. I call on Guyana’s capable lawmakers to amend the suicide law to decriminalise suicide attempts, except when vile and vicious criminals try to kill themselves before prosecution.

Furthermore, I call on government, NGOs and medical professionals who deal with mental health issues to increase public awareness of suicide triggers like acute emotional distress and depression, along with the familiar monsters of alcohol and drug use and dysfunctional families.

Of course, alongside the suicide law there are many out-of-date, useless laws clogging up our law books that make it look as if Guyana is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to lawmaking. But that’s another story for another time.

Yours faithfully,

Roshan Khan Sr

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