A Civil Society Organisation, Nigerian Mental Health, has called on the country’s lawmakers to repeal laws that currently penalise citizens who try to take their lives with a one-year jail term.
This is as the CSO launched a policy brief on decriminalising attempted suicide in Nigeria to drive legislative and societal change, and transform suicide from “a criminal offence to a public health concern.”
The policy brief, which was launched in September, was in commemoration of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
The group said individuals who attempt suicide need compassionate, evidence-based mental health support, not jail.
Nigeria with a population of over 200 million is one of the epicentres of suicide in the world according to a 2016 WHO report indicating that the country had the seventh-highest suicide rate in Africa and the 15th highest globally.
According to a report, no fewer than 79 persons committed suicide in Nigeria in 2022.
Meanwhile, the country has since labelled attempted suicide a criminal offence, as both the Criminal Code Act in the South and the Penal Code in the North regard those who attempt to end their own lives as offenders in the misdemeanour category.
As part of advocacy efforts, Nigeria Mental Health and other partners launched the #SuicideNotCrimeNG campaign in 2022 and advanced a petition that has amassed thousands of signatures calling for the policy change.
The CSOs argued that the law prevents individuals with suicidal behaviour from engaging in help-seeking behaviour or authorities from collecting accurate data on suicide because they fear legal sanctions.
Speaking at the launch of the policy brief, Chime Asonye, Founder of Nigerian Mental Health, and a co-author of the report, said the brief is the continuation of collective advocacy efforts to decriminalise attempted suicide in Nigeria.
Mr Asonye said along with other initiatives, the CSO has released an Open Letter with over 40 mental organisations calling on this critical policy change that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
The WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2030 recommends that the decriminalisation of suicide and suicide attempts is a critical step that governments can take in their efforts to prevent suicide.
The policy brief highlights reasons why laws criminalising attempted suicide should be repealed noting that current government regulations have colonial origins.
It also cited studies that found that laws that criminalise the act of suicide are ineffective and increase suicide rates, especially among women.
The CSO said it plans to conduct advocacy visits to the National Assembly and engage lawmakers to “elevate this issue as a legislative priority.”
The launch also featured panellists including M.I Agbada, a rapper and entrepreneur; Tunde Ojo, National Mental Health Programme Coordinator, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health; Sunday Umeha, Deputy Chairman, Nigeria’s House Committee on Justice; and Antionette Lecky, an educator and former Big Brother contestant.
“We need to support legal reforms for those who are neurodivergent,” said Mr Agbada. “It is not a sign of weakness to discuss mental health openly, it’s a sign of strength. I’m glad I could serve on the panel and lend my voice to this important cause,” the group said.
Implementation of National Mental Health Act
Nigerian Mental Health and 40 other campaigners recently called for the implementation and enforcement of the National Mental Health Act signed by former President Muhammadu Buhari.
Mr Buhari signed the Mental Health Bill 2021 into law in January after two failed attempts at overhaul in 2003 and 2013, which is now the first legislative reform adopted in the field since the country’s independence.
The group comprises CSOs that are focused on the health sector including the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APN), Association of Psychiatric Nurses in Nigeria (APNON), Nigerian Association of Clinical Psychologists (NACP), Mentally Aware Initiative, Mental Health with Ditty, among others.
The group said the Mental Health Act should be adopted at the subnational level, noting that state governments are critical actors in dispensing healthcare for citizens.
It said only two states, Ekiti and Lagos currently have mental health legislation in the country.
The group also appealed to the National Assembly and the Federal Ministry of Health to ensure published copies of the National Mental Health Act 2021 are available to citizens.
In addition to expunging these laws from the Criminal and Penal Codes, the policy brief recommends adopting alternative interventions like early screenings and limiting access to items used to commit suicide.
It noted that stopping medical dentition or compulsory requirements that involve prosecution and engaging traditional and religious stakeholders to dispel moral and cultural justifications to criminalise suicide.
It also recommends training first responders such as police and emergency health care providers in psychological first aid and crisis intervention education to support post- decriminalisation transition.
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