TODAY marks World Suicide Prevention Day — a day that demands sombre reflection in Pakistan, followed by decisive action, for the struggle ahead is enormous. Festering under the weight of stigma, triggered and exacerbated by widespread socioeconomic stressors, mental illness potentially affects up to one-third of our population, with marginalised groups being most vulnerable. Recent reports have highlighted alarming suicide rates in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, particularly among students and married women. While some cases might be misreported, in these areas and across Pakistan, it is clear that injustice, poverty, inequality, violence and intolerance are driving many to despair. Forcing individuals to endure psychological pain in silence absolves society of the burden to reform. This must change.
Despite the Senate’s decision earlier this year to repeal the colonial statute criminalising attempted suicide, Section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code remains. This presents a significant challenge, as any kind of meaningful intervention requires, as a precursor, that suicidal ideation be treated as a symptom of disease, not as a crime. Decriminalising suicide could be the most consequential action the government could take to address this public health crisis, but it must dovetail into a broader policy of promoting mental well-being. Most sufferers have no recourse to any form of treatment; the very fact that mental illness is stigmatised (and in its worst manifestation criminalised) has hampered much-needed quantitative and qualitative research, resource allocation and capacity building in this field. Only a small minority can access what limited psychiatric services are available, let alone find a compassionate support structure in their families and communities. Political and community leaders must be at the vanguard of reaching out to the vulnerable with understanding instead of opprobrium. Of note is the manner in which President Arif Alvi recently addressed a high-profile alleged suicide by calling for increased psychiatric services and a suicide prevention helpline. This is urgently needed; while local NGOs have attempted similar initiatives, a national, 24/7 helpline, staffed with trained operators, can help in emergency situations and serve as a network, connecting at-risk individuals with public and private health services, rehabilitation facilities, crisis centres, etc. The media, too, has a vital role to play, not just to create attitudinal change but also to develop guidelines for reporting on suicide and mental health in consultation with professionals, to avoid sensationalising and stigmatising such issues, and to avoid a possible contagion effect.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2018