MENTAL HEALTH

Health stakeholders want suicide decriminalised

Under Kenyan law, suicide is classified as criminal offence punishable by jail time

In Summary

• Stakeholders among them Health ministry officials, medics and legislators say that persons who have attempted suicide need medical help, not punishment. 

• According to experts, 90 per cent of people who attempt or die by suicide have one or more mental health conditions. 

Victims of attempted suicide could soon get a chance to receive treatment without being arrested if a proposal by health stakeholders is adopted.

The stakeholders seek to decriminalise suicide attempts amid growing rates in the country.

Under Kenyan law, the Penal Code defines attempted suicide as a crime. 

It is categorised under offences connected with murder and suicide and is punishable by a jail term of up to two years or a fine, or both. 

Speaking at the Mental Health Conference in Nairobi last month, stakeholders among them Health ministry officials, medics and legislators said that persons who have attempted suicide need medical help, not punishment.

Health PS Susan Mochache and Murang'a Woman Rep Sabina Chege during Mental Health conference last month at KICC
MENTAL HEALTH: Health PS Susan Mochache and Murang'a Woman Rep Sabina Chege during Mental Health conference last month at KICC
Image: MAGDALINE SAYA

“It is totally ridiculous that we sit here and discuss suicide and how to manage it yet in our statute books we say if you try to kill yourself you will go to jail,” Lukoye Atwoli said. 

He added, “To reduce rates of suicides, we have to start by reducing pain. To achieve this we have to increase hope.”

Atwoli noted that penalties in Kenyan law for attempting suicide have led to low disclosure leading to acute shortage of data. 

According to experts, 90 per cent of people who attempt or die by suicide have one or more mental health conditions.

However, in some cases, the condition may not have been formally diagnosed by a clinician. 

“It is not normal for a man to wake up one day and kill his children and his wife. Maybe he was depressed, didn't have somewhere to go and talk about what was going on in his mind and that was the end result,” Murang'a Woman Rep Sabina Chege noted.

They argue that the law is a hindrance to people living with suicidal thoughts because the knowledge that it is a criminal offence makes them go into hiding rather than seek help.

“I have a 14-year-old niece who has attempted to take her life very many times. It has taken the care of a psychiatrist to help her cope with some of the issues and I am sure very many of us know of somebody suffering from mental illness,” Health PS Susan Mochache said. 

Health PS Susan Mochache arrives for the Mental Health conference at KICC las month
INADEQUATE DATA: Health PS Susan Mochache arrives for the Mental Health conference at KICC las month
Image: MAGDALINE SAYA

Nominated Senator Sylvia Kasanga has sponsored a Mental Health Amendment Bill 2018 that seeks to, among others, promote mental well-being.  

It will also help reduce the impact of mental illnesses including effects of stigma on individuals, family and the community, promote recovery and ensure the rights of persons with mental illness are protected. 

For instance, the Bill proposes that a person in charge of, or any person employed at a mental health facility or unit who strikes, treats badly, abuses or willfully neglects any patient commits an offence.

“The aim of the bill is largely to give a framework for county and national governments to work in the space of mental health and help fight stigma, allow a multi-sectoral approach towards fighting stigma, eradication and towards Kenyans understanding they can seek treatment and that there is nothing to be ashamed of,” Senator Kasanga said. 

The World Health Organization says about 800,000 people die from suicide each year–one person every 40 seconds– a majority of whom are aged 15-29.

WHO Kenya Representative Rudi Eggers and Health PS Susan Mochache during Mental Health conference at KICC
'HELP NEEDED, NOT PUNISHMENT': WHO Kenya Representative Rudi Eggers and Health PS Susan Mochache during Mental Health conference at KICC
Image: MAGDALINE SAYA

In Kenya, WHO data estimates that 1,408 people commit suicide yearly, this amounts to four deaths daily. 

Besides depression, other risk factors include access to firearms, physical or sexual abuse, unemployment, strained relationships, imprisonment, chronic physical illness, financial difficulties, loneliness and exposure to the suicidal behaviour of others. 

Edited by R.Wamochie