RECENTLY, divers in Peshawar saved a man from drowning after receiving an emergency call from among those who witnessed the man jump into the Kabul River. The man told the rescue crew that his intention was to commit suicide. Fortunately, he was saved. But by WHO estimates, his case is just one of some 130,000 to 270,000 attempted suicides in Pakistan each year.

Since colonial times, federal law in Pakistan has attempted to curb suicide under Section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which states that attempting suicide is a crime and that a survivor can be jailed for up to a year. While the intention may be to discourage suicide, punitive methods are doing more harm than good because the threat of prosecution only increases the suffering of victims and may even have the opposite effect.

After a suicide attempt, a 26-year-old single woman was taken by her parents to a private hospital. After being provided with medical support, she was brought home, only to find the police waiting to question her. Even though her privileged background was able to shield her from the law, the trauma of experiencing criminalisation still affects the woman and makes it difficult for her to share her mental health problems with others.

Imagine for a moment that an individual with high blood pressure has a heart attack and is rushed to emergency. After receiving immediate medical attention and surviving the heart attack, the patient is then informed by police that he or she will be arrested and jailed because heart attacks are illegal. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

Attempted suicide must be decriminalised.

Just like a heart attack can be a complication of high blood pressure, suicide is usually a complication of untreated mental illness. When extreme distress is experienced by sufferers of mental illness, like depression and anxiety, and they don’t have any option for support then suicide for them becomes an escape from a reality that is too intolerable to bear. Therefore, one critical way to prevent suicide is to provide medical support to individuals experiencing distress so they can process it in a healthier manner without feeling the need to resort to self-harm.

But that is not how Pakistani law sees suicide.

When we treat suicide as a criminal act, instead of the mental health crisis that it is, we compromise on the human rights of victims. Families and loved ones spend more time hiding a suicide attempt to protect the family’s ‘honour’, rather than focusing on getting victims the required mental health support. Fear of prosecution is an added trauma for individuals already suffering from mental illness as they become vulnerable to police harassment. All of this can worsen their condition, increasing the likelihood of them developing severe mental illness and discouraging them from reaching out for the help that they need. In addition, criminalisation of suicide may force some victims to resort to greater lethal means in their first attempt.

None of this is new. Anti-suicide laws in Pakistan are rooted in the ideas and structures of the colonial powers that once ruled the subcontinent. During mediaeval times in England, suicide was formally criminalised to restrain peasants who resorted to it as a means of escape from feudal lordship and to ensure that the state could legally repossess the assets of anyone attempting it. Suicide eventually made its way into the British Penal Code. In the 1950s, the British Medical Association and the Church of England led the effort to decriminalise suicide because by then it had become recognised as the medical problem it is and not a criminal one. South Asian countries have begun repealing the law for the same reason. Other Muslim countries, including Iran, Qatar, Indonesia, and the UAE, have also decriminalised suicide to allow sufferers to get the medical attention they need.

Detractors may argue that decriminalising suicide may encourage it. They may cite the increased reporting of suicide figures after decriminalisation to support this argument. However, there would be increased reporting due to decriminalisation which would encourage survivors to share their experiences. In fact, criminalising suicide may be increasing its rates, because if victims know that they may go to jail if they survive they may resort to more lethal means.

The nation is ready to change. In 2017, activists tried to repeal the law. The Senate and the Council of Islamic Ideology agreed that suicide was a medical issue and supported the repeal. However, the proposed bill was met with opposition in parliament and failed to pass.

The time has come to repeal this draconian law which is a remnant of our oppressive colonial past. It’s time we provided support rather than meted out punishment to those who are already suffering.

Dr Taha Sabri, a public health practitioner focusing on mental health, is co-founder and COO of Taskeen Health Initiative. Dr Mekaiel Zia, a Fulbright scholar, is a health policy and management professional focusing on mental health.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2021

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