September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and October features World Mental Health Day, so it is an important period to think about psychological well-being. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 40 seconds, someone takes their life. This makes suicide a significant public health issue that remains a leading cause of death worldwide. Every year, more people die due to suicide than HIV, malaria — or any violent death, even homicide, war, or terrorist attack (WHO 2023). This structural violence requires immediate attention, especially in Nigeria. The country is one of the epicenters of suicide in the world, having the seventh-highest suicide rate in Africa and the fifteen-highest globally (WHO 2016).
Government regulations are, unfortunately, exacerbating the issue. Currently, attempted suicide is illegal according to Nigeria’s Criminal and Penal Codes and penalizes citizens with a one-year jail term. Suicide should be treated as a public health issue, not a judicial one. Individuals who attempt to take their lives need support, not jail.
Nigerian Mental Health (NMH), a community of leading mental health stakeholders, thought leaders, and over 30 non-profit organizations, has started a campaign to decriminalize attempted suicide, called #SuicideNotCrimeNG. In December 2022, NMH coordinated a press statement where 40 of Nigeria’s leading mental health organizations called for decriminalizing attempted suicide in Nigeria to strengthen the implementation and regulatory environment of the National Mental Health Act adopted last year. This included the four leading professional bodies in the field — the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, the National Association of Clinical Psychologists, the Association of Medical Social Workers of Nigeria, and the Association of Psychiatric Nurses of Nigeria. Additionally, the organization has begun a petition for the #SuicideNotCrimeNG campaign that has already garnered almost 5,000 signatures.
The petition highlights the reasons the Nigerian government should immediately repeal these statutes because they are colonial, ineffective, contravene global decriminalization trends, reduce reliable national suicide data, legally discriminate against those with mental health conditions, stigmatize, and violate human rights provisions of international accords the country has acceded to. Worse yet, the policy increases suicide. A systematic study by BMJ Public Health revealed that countries that criminalize the act of suicide have higher rates of suicide among women. This law criminalizing attempted suicide is not only bad public health policy but also causes increased gendered violence.
Please visit the petition to learn more about #SuicideNotCrimeNG and support legal reform. Join thousands of others in adding your voice to repeal these laws and decriminalize attempted suicide in Nigeria. Also, if you are experiencing suicidal ideations or psychological distress, visit NMH’s website for mental health and crisis hotline resources.
Furthermore, join the conversation on Thursday, 28 September, 2023 by 6:00 pm WAT on Zoom by registering here.
Chime Asonye, J.D.
Founder, Nigerian Mental Health