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The importance of Ghana's success in repealing its anti-suicide law

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The importance of Ghana's success in repealing its anti-suicide law Dr. Atsu Latey at the BBC studios in London to discuss the implications of the repeal of Ghana's antisuicide law. Credit: MindITGH

Understanding Suicide and its medical basis

Suicide stands as a significant public health issue, claiming the lives of approximately 800,000 individuals annually, equating to one tragic death every 40 seconds. The repercussions extend far beyond the individual, affecting families, communities, and straining healthcare systems with its associated costs. Shockingly, suicide and its related consequences accounted for 1.4% of all diseases in 2020.

Scientifically, suicide is rooted in biology, intertwined with underlying mental health issues. Major depressive disorder, a prevalent mental health issue, accounts for around 87% of suicide cases. This underscores the critical need for mental health support and intervention strategies to address the root causes of suicidal behavior.

Historical Context and Legal Framework

The historical context of suicide legislation reveals a complex narrative. During the colonial era, anti-suicide laws were enforced in colonies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. While some nations repealed these laws, others, including Ghana, retained them post-independence. At least 23 nations around the world still have laws that criminalize suicide and suicide attempts, and several of those countries have laws that even penalize suicide attempts. The rationale for maintaining such laws often stems from ethical and cultural beliefs regarding the sanctity of life and self-preservation. 

However the scientific and medical understanding of suicide contradicts these outdated legal frameworks. Criminalizing suicide and suicide attempts not only fails to address underlying mental health issues but also perpetuates stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. Moreover, it inhibits accurate data collection and hinders suicide prevention efforts.

The Case for Decriminalization

According to the World Health Organization, decriminalizing attempted suicides is not only ethically sound but also essential for preserving lives and reducing the suffering of individuals and their families. It fosters a more empathic understanding of psychological distress and promotes open dialogue about mental health and suicide. Furthermore, it enables accurate data collection, informs effective interventions, and amplifies suicide prevention advocacy and awareness.

Ghana’s landmark decision

In June 2023, Ghana made history by decriminalizing attempted suicides, marking a significant shift towards more compassionate and evidence-based approaches to mental health. Previously, in section 57(2) of the Criminal and Other Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29), “A person who attempts to commit suicide commits a misdemeanor” and such persons could be handed a custodial sentence. Seeing that 98% of suicides are linked to underlying mental health conditions, it is indeed unfair to prosecute such persons. In Ghana, there are roughly 1,500 documented suicide instances each year, with an additional four unreported cases for every 1,500 reported cases, making a total of over 6,000 unreported cases annually. 

This legislative change acknowledges that attempted suicide is often a cry for help, necessitating mental health evaluation and support rather than punitive measures. The decision reflects both progress in scientific understanding and a commitment to fair treatment for those struggling with mental health issues. 

Looking Ahead: Advocacy and Support

The journey towards promoting mental health and dismantling outdated laws requires concerted efforts from governments, healthcare professionals, and advocacy groups. It necessitates a re-examination of existing legal frameworks to align with contemporary understanding and values. Increased advocacy, support services, and community engagement are crucial in creating a society where mental health is prioritized, stigma is reduced, and individuals are treated with compassion and dignity.

In the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”, let us honor this courage by advocating for policies and practices that support mental health and uphold the inherent worth of each individual.

In conclusion, suicide is an issue with profound implications for individuals and societies alike. Addressing it requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses medical, social, and legal dimensions. Countries need to re-examine old laws that mitigate against the promotion of mental health and fair treatment. Increased advocacy and support for those living with mental health conditions are needed, and old anti-suicide laws need to be repealed. By decriminalizing attempted suicides and promoting mental health awareness, we can foster a more compassionate and supportive environment for all individuals, ensuring that no one struggles alone in silence.

Atsu Latey

Medical doctor and Health Policy and Financing Specialist

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