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Decriminalising suicide

Updated February 21, 2018

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ALTHOUGH many outmoded laws still remain on our statute books, perhaps one of the cruellest and most damaging is that pertaining to the criminalisation of suicide.

Ours is one of the few countries to still cling to the colonial-era codification of mental illness as criminal deviancy, embedded in Section 325 (attempt to commit suicide) of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, and the Lunacy Act, 1912.

The latter was finally repealed and replaced by the Mental Health Ordinance in 2001, followed by the passage of related provincial legislation post-devolution, yet the former remained.

This could change very soon, following the Senate’s unanimous decision to pass an amendment to repeal Section 325 on Monday.

Initially held up over religious concerns, the passage of this bill is representative of the growing consensus — not just within the medical community — that providing treatment to a person who attempts suicide is the appropriate moral response of a society that upholds the sanctity of life.

Suicidal ideation is a symptom, not a crime.

To subject people who in their despair and under the influence of a medical condition that impairs their mental cognisance sought to take their own lives to punitive action (or the threat of it) is injurious not only to them but to entire communities.

With up to 34pc of our population suffering from some form of mental disorder, and suicide as the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds, it is no coincidence that stressors such as poverty, discrimination and exposure to violence exacerbate the prevalence of mental illness.

Stigmatising those who are most vulnerable, and preventing families and healthcare professionals from being able to provide support and treatment are collective failures we must rectify. Such efforts cannot end with mere decriminalisation.

Ensuring that policy guidelines for improving Pakistan’s mental health indicators are enacted will have far-reaching economic and social benefits.

Given that our inadequate health budgets cannot accommodate such a sea change, interim measures should include a transition from institutionalisation to community-based rehabilitation; collaboration with NGOs working on suicide prevention and other mental health-related issues; and capacity building and training in schools, communities and workplaces to help identify at-risk individuals, develop resilience and support mental well-being.

As this election cycle gears up, our prospective representatives must take note: a more people-centric government is one that prioritises our mental health needs.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018

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