When Elizabeth Ita was younger, she contemplated suicide. Following her father’s passing in their hometown, Calabar, Nigeria, she had no one to share her hurtful emotions with.
If the State knew of Ita’s plight, instead of getting help, she would have been sent to prison, according to Section 327 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code, which states that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, mental health is rarely taken seriously- There is a lack of funding for mental health care, and Nigeria’s over 200 million population rely on 8 neuropsychiatric hospitals spread across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
People who suffer from mental illness are even stigmatised- People with mental illnesses are often thought of as dangerous, regardless of their type or diagnosis of mental illness.
Recently, Ita, who now leads Stilt NG, an organisation that demystifies mental health for young persons, is part of a nationwide campaign to decriminalise suicide.
“As a person who contemplated suicide, I understand the trauma and distress of people who attempt suicide. I am clamouring for this petition to provide help to others and give them hope.” Ita said
Also in the coalition pushing for decriminalisation is the Nigerian Mental Health or NMH, which has urged the Federal government and lawmakers to decriminalise suicide as a means to deal with the stigmatisation of people with mental illness.
The group, in a petition on Change.org, emphasised that suicide is a public health concern necessitating empathy, understanding, and assistance instead of punitive measures.
The organisation assert that individuals attempting suicide are in a fragile psychological state and require support, not incarceration, and Ita agrees.
“A person considers suicide when they feel trapped, isolated, lonely, and lacking supporting relationships. They experience overwhelming pain and despair over a predicament,” she stated.
Ita added, “People attempt suicide for several reasons, such as Sexual abuse, loss of a loved one, unemployment, economic stress and many more. The easy access to lethal items like insecticide, sniper, in the Nigerian market, also aids these suicidal acts…” Esther Ita said
Ita further explained that such distressed persons need love and physical and emotional assistance rather than imprisonment.
NMH calls on the government to build upon the progress achieved through the National Mental Health Act 2021 by implementing essential regulatory reforms to serve those with mental health conditions better while upholding human rights and supporting the disability community.
A need for robust mental health action
In 2016, the World Health Organization or WHO identified Nigeria as the African nation with the highest suicide rate.
This tragic statistic accounted for over 17,000 lives lost to suicide in the country. WHO reported a total of 17,710 recorded suicide cases in 2016. Among these cases, 8,410 were females, while 9,300 were males.
These alarming numbers firmly establish Nigeria as the front-runner in the African region concerning suicide rates. Ethiopia and South Africa followed closely with 7,323 and 6,476 cases, respectively.
These statistics shed light on the urgent need to reconsider Nigeria’s approach to suicide attempts by decriminalising them.
The criminalisation of suicide perpetuates an environment that fosters blame towards people who attempt suicide and deters people from seeking timely help due to the fear of legal repercussions and stigma.
In contrast, according to Ita, decriminalisation of attempted suicide will grant access to timely interventions. By removing criminal penalties, there will be openings for early intervention and support for people in crisis.
Another advantage of decriminalising suicide attempts in Nigeria will be building on the gains of the Mental Health Act.
“…having suicide criminalised in Nigeria is contradictory to the provisions of the Mental Health Act. The Mental Health Act was signed with the promise of care and promotion of mental health services for vulnerable people (People with psychosocial disabilities), but then the law that criminalises attempted suicide says if somebody is vulnerable or in a bad mental state, then the person should be punished, which is contrary and to its importance that we set supporting legislations to enforce the implementation of the Mental Health Act.”
Ita further explained that the decriminalisation of attempted suicide would help to destigmatise mental health issues. This would mean that the people who attempt suicide need support and treatment instead of punishment.
Thus, people will be encouraged to share their struggles and be expressive instead of being scared of arrest. They will be able to seek help from family and treatment for their mental health challenges without fear of legal consequences.
“…So right now, the focus is on penalties, the one-year jail term. But when the focus shifts right, it will shift to improving mental health services and resources. After the law has been repealed, the conversation will be on the provisions made for people in psychosocial distress.”
Ita added that decriminalising suicide attempts equates to the promotion of human rights.
“Decriminalizing attempt at suicide aligns with international human rights standards. There’s the CRPD. The CRPD stands for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is an international human rights convention which sets up the fundamental human rights of people with disabilities. And so it aligns with the CRPD, the SDGs and other international human rights protection bodies.” Ita said