“Suicide is not a blot on anyone’s name; it is a tragedy.”
Due to a lack of awareness on the validity behind mental health issues, there is a tendency for mental illness to be chalked down as ‘something that went wrong’ with the people who dare to share about their struggles. For example, depression is often confused with sadness. There is a clear failure to recognize that depression involves a flaw in brain chemistry, and it is deeper than something that is brought about by one’s own attitude or mentality. Yes, depression can be triggered by a traumatic or life-changing event; but depression is very different from sadness.
From the example above, we can see that one of the main barriers of treating or recognizing mental illness is social stigma. In recent years, the view towards suicide, actual and attempted, has garnered more attention due to the increasing amount of cases over the years. Befriender’s KL publicity director Ardy Ayadali said 7,446 who called in 2016 had suicidal intentions, compared with 5,739 in 2015[i] – showing almost a 2000 increase in callers. A study in 2014 entitled ‘Completed Suicides and Self-Harm in Malaysia: A Systematic Review’ stated that the prevalence of suicide in Malaysia was six to eight per 100,000 population per year[ii].
In Malaysia’s, suicide or its attempt is a crime under Section 309 of the Penal Code. It carries a sentence of up to one year in prison, or a fine, or both. The main question that comes to light would be: should those who attempt/are involved in suicide ought to still be brought before the criminal justice system? The following will discuss on the mind-set behind suicide; reasons for suicide’s criminalization and decriminalization; as well as the focus on what has been done in Malaysia in regards to mental health. What more should the law be equipped with, could have, or should have done to prevent these acts?
Understanding the mindset of suicide
The Health Ministry revealed statistics that showed worsening state of mental health problems among students in Malaysia, from one in ten individuals in 2011 to one in five in 2016.
Mental health expert Dr Mohd Suhaimi Mohamad observed that if mental health concerns are not addressed in due time, it can lead to students being inclined to go through with their thoughts. “Low self-confidence as a result could cause a student to be in a state of worry and stress, coupled with the pressure that drives them to be competitive,” he said[iii]. Feelings, if bottled up too long, can drive a person to be overwhelmed and this could lead to skewed emotions and reckless decisions.
Befriender’s KL publicity director emphasized the importance of communication between parents and children, and how crucial it was to keep things in check. Especially in an Asian community where there is a lack of openness, parents can sometimes take mental health issues not as seriously and they do not seek help for their children. Once this happens, their children may have ingrained in them that they should not talk to their parents when they encounter similar difficulties in the future[iv].
Ashley Greig wrote in an article about how a factor that could influence one’s thoughts is modus vivendi[v]. It means “way of living”, in a direct translation from Latin. Her perspective represents the external factors of what could be heightening a youth’s existing suicidal mindset; specifically the effect of peer pressure and social media. The Internet has given us greater access, from gaining resourceful information for our projects to tutorials to guide you through learning a skill. However, the Internet is also a place that allows for bullies to hide behind their keyboards and still mess with their victim; it has given us opportunities to take part in the ‘dark’ side of the internet which can lead to unwanted stress and urges. The 21st century has created a new generation of people with expectations of perfectionism, and when their expectations are not met, the disappointment that registers in their mind can be damaging – or even life threatening.
Suicide and attempted suicide are still considered a crime in several countries. Any form of assisted-suicide, inclusive of assistance from a physician is considered illegal in China. In Singapore, anyone who attempts suicide can be sent to prison for up to a full year[vi].
Does the criminalisation of suicide really serve as an effective prevention of suicide? The World Health Organisation (WHO) holds the stance that criminalisation stalls people from seeking treatment, which in turn increases the risk of suicide rather than reducing it. Criminalisation seems to focus on the assigning of blame, rather than identifying the reason behind their cry for help. Criminalisation may even motivate those attempting suicide to ensure that they don’t fail, instead of surviving and having to meet their punishment[vii]. “Suicide is a matter for social support and public health, not criminal law,” said Ms Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy & Research at AWARE[viii]. Suicidal cases should be seen by a psychiatrist or psychologist for further management. Attempters would find more help in counselling and rehabilitation in comparison to court proceedings[ix].
Foundations matter, and one of the main reasons for the criminalization of suicide stems from a matter of belief. English law perceived suicide as an immoral, criminal offence against God and also against the King. In terms of the Christian perspective, God had crafted us in His image and therefore our life is sacred. If we look at the world through the lens of moral relativism and how nobody is objectively right or wrong, it blurs the true vision of the only actual authority who has the power to take and give life. In Christianity, only the Creator can rightfully destroy either life or liberty. He gave us both, and only He can rightfully separate us from them. In the case of self-murder, nowhere was an exception provided as it was written in His command, “Thou shalt not kill”[x].
In terms of the Islam religion, their basic belief lies in the protection of humanity. One of their foundational goals is to preserve the life of human beings. Islam strongly prohibits suicide due to its teachings on the sanctity of life. The religion provides comfort to the distraught to not give in to their despair, and try their utmost best to get out of their conundrums while putting their faith in God[xi].
1961: England’s change of heart and decriminalization
Over the years there has been a paradigm shift on the view of the criminality of suicide. Laws changed to eliminate the criminality of taking one’s own life in the UK when the previous crime of ‘self-murder’ was abolished under The Suicide Act 1961[xii]. With this legal change, suicide ceased to be a criminal offence; this same legislation made it an offence to assist in a suicide.
In a quick run through of the process, Richard Austen Butler (Home Secretary of that time) was dubious over the need for a change in the law. Although there is greater sympathy and understanding with the struggles of mental health, there was no evidence that an amendment to decriminalizing suicide would be universally acceptable. However, St. Pancras North Labour MP Kenneth Robinson was persistent in raising this issue in the House of Commons and would not let the matter drop. On 27 February 1958, he tabled a motion contending that suicide being seen as a criminal offence should come to a halt. Within days 150 MPs had signed it. When the law was finally repealed three years later it was widely welcomed and 50 years on it is still seen as an important moment.
Professor Nav Kapur, head of research at Manchester University’s Centre for Suicide Prevention commended how greater awareness of mental health issues had led to greater empathy. In the late 50’s and 60’s, the public’s attitudes shifted from suicide being seen as a wrongdoing to the need for medical attention and care, recognising that the majority of individuals attempting suicide were in a great deal of distress[xiii].
Following the play-by-play above, the importance for the law to be amended is shown. The Health Ministry’s Mental Health Promotion Advisory Council provides that people should be given mental health support and advice instead of being treated as a criminal. At the launch of ‘One World Connected: Working Together to Prevent Suicide’ forum, Council member Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye had distinguished how preservation of criminalization was often said to be based on the possibility of more attempts if suicide was decriminalized. And yet, no data or case-reports indicates that decriminalisation increases suicide cases[xiv].
What has been done in Malaysia
Our Malaysian government had a few initiatives over the years in tackling mental health issues. The National Mental Health Policy and The Mental Health Act 2001 was imposed[xv]. At present, several programmes are in place which includes Program Minda Sihat Sekolah, Screening and Healthy Mind Intervention in Primary Health Care, Community Mental Health Rehabilitation Programme, Job Placement Programme, Mental Health and Psychosocial Response in Disasters and workplace Stress Management Programmes.
Criminal lawyer Collin Arvind Andrew expressed how the law did not possess proper empathy; the person may be going through a lot in their mind at the time of the attempt[xvi]. State Police Central Intelligence and Crime Unit officer DSP Yazrie Ismail explained his take on suicide cases, firmly believing that such cases should not be brought to court so as not add more stress to the accused. His line of reasoning surrounds the welfare of the person involved; the persons’ mental and psychological condition should not be intensified further[xvii]. There is a greater understanding for mental health issues in recent years which leads to a fight for a more lenient treatment towards the attempters.
Late 2016, the National Mental Health Strategic Action Plan was introduced by the Malaysian government in response to the prominence of Malaysians suffering from mental health issues. Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said that the five-year plan (2016-2020) sets out the main mental health priorities for the government, non-governmental agencies (NGO’s), employers, schools and the public. Currently at the drafting stage, the plan is following in line with WHO’s comprehensive mental health action plan (2013- 2020) to deal with the increase in mental health cases in Malaysian society. The plan is a public health approach that takes into consideration cross-sectoral collaborations, task shifting and training of NGOs.
Dr Noor Hisham referred to the action plan tackling several areas, which includes accessible and comprehensive mental health care and services, and to have cross-sector collaboration among agencies. The plan also encouraged the need to spread awareness of mental health issues, such as through target group sessions, basic psychological aid during a crisis, research and surveillance. The plan being able to succeed would be another question altogether, and this could only be assessed upon implementation[xviii].
What can we do as citizens
We never truly know how a certain illness or disorder can be affecting a person’s life and how much they may be struggling. Everyone plays a part in building towards a place of good mental health. We should take the initiative to be educated in dealing with mental illness, and how to do our part in providing a healthy and caring society[xix].
When we discuss about issues in relation to mental health, there will be many unanswered questions that is asked by the society. It should first be recognized that suicide is not a random and pointless act. It is seen as a way out of an intolerable situation, a crisis, a problem or difficulty. To make prevention more solid, it must start with a change in mindset – being more open in talking about it and seeking for help isn’t something to be ashamed about[xx].
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Pursuing her law degree, but secretly inspires to also be a writer. Occasionally has deep thoughts about life and conjures emotional proses about them. “She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).
[i] Suzanna Pillay, “Suicide on the rise among Malaysian youth”, 28 May 2017, https://www.nst.com.my/news/exclusive/2017/05/243354/suicide-rise-among-malaysian-youth
[ii] Lisa Goh, “A crime or a cry for help?”, The Star Online, 20 June 2012, http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2012/06/10/a-crime-or-a-cry-for-help/
[iii] Vi-Jean Khoo, “Suicide rates on the rise among teenagers and in urban areas in Malaysia”, 22 September 2016, MIMS, https://today.mims.com/topic/suicide-rates-on-the-rise-among-teenagers-and-in-urban-areas-in-malaysia
[iv] Suzanna Pillay, “Suicide on the rise among Malaysian youth”, op.cit.
[v] Ashley Greig, “’Modus Vivendi’ and Suicides”, 16 April 2017, New Straits Times, http://www1.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/2017/04/230918/modus-vivendi-and-suicides
[vi] Mental Health Daily, “Is Suicide Illegal? Suicide Laws by Country”, July 2014, http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/07/24/is-suicide-illegal-suicide-laws-by-country/
[vii] Corinna Lim, “Suicide laws deter treatment, not attempts”, 20 February 2013, Association of Women for Action and Research, http://www.aware.org.sg/2013/02/suicide-law-deters-the-distressed-from-getting-help/
[viii] Khairunisya Hanafi, “What you must know about suicide law reform in Singapore”, 22 September 2016, The Middle Ground, http://themiddleground.sg/2016/09/22/must-know-suicide-law-reform-singapore/
[ix] S.Annie Margaret, Fara Azida binti Ahmad Bakri, Dr.Lee Mah Nge; “Suicidal Prevention Using Jurisdiction”; International Journal of Business, Economics and Law; Volume 1; http://ijbel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Suicidal-Prevention-Using-Jurisdiction-S.Annie-Margaret.pdf
[x] Prof. William Wagner, Prof. John S.Kane, Lauren Prieb, “How Suicide Killing of Human Life Became A Human Right In The United Kingdom”, http://www.christianconcern.com/sites/default/files/docs/Assisted_Killing_Pamphlet.pdf
[xi] Mohamad Asim Ismail, “Coping with suicide from the Islamic perspective”, 17 January 2017, The Star Malaysia, https://www.pressreader.com/malaysia/the-star-malaysia/20170117/281788513758389
[xii] Rachel Egan, “Suicide Isn’t A Crime Therefore You Cannot ‘Commit’ It”, 5 July 2013, Huffpost United Kingdom, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rachel-egan/suicide-isnt-a-crime_b_3195839.html
[xiii] Gerry Holt, “When suicide was illegal”, 3 August 2011, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14374296
[xiv] The Star/Asia News Network, “Council: Stop treating those attempting suicide as criminals”, 28 September 2014, http://www.asiaone.com/malaysia/council-stop-treating-those-attempting-suicide-criminals?amp
[xv] IIUM Today, “Suicide Cases in Malaysia Rather Shocking”, 24 November 2016, http://news.iium.edu.my/2016/11/24/suicide-cases-in-malaysia-rather-shocking/
[xvi] Malaysian Digest, “Suicide Attempt Is Still A Crime in Malaysia: Experts Discuss Whether This Law Is Outdated”, 3 July 2015, http://www.malaysiandigest.com/opinion/560164-suicide-attempt-is-still-a-crime-in-malaysia-experts-discuss-whether-this-law-is-outdated.html
[xvii] Mariah Doksil, “Should law for suicide attempts be amended?”, 25 September 2016, http://www.theborneopost.com/2016/09/25/should-law-for-suicide-attempts-be-amended/
[xviii] Tharanya Arumugam, “Mental health plan on the cards”, 3 October 2016, New Straits Times, https://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/10/177646/mental-health-plan-cards
[xix] Elza Irdalynna, “Stigma on suicide”, 13 September 2013, Free Malaysia Today, http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2013/09/13/stigma-on-suicide/
[xx] S.Annie Margaret, Fara Azida binti Ahmad Bakri, Dr. Lee Mah Nge, “Suicidal Prevention Using Jurisdiction”, International Journal of Business, Economics and Law, Volume I, http://ijbel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Suicidal-Prevention-Using-Jurisdiction-S.Annie-Margaret.pdf