Mental Health Bill and the Charge for Attempted Suicide

Dr Olufemi Oluwatayo

As widely reported in the media, on Wednesday 3rd of May 2018, the Nigerian Police Force Public Relation Officer, Jimoh Moshood released this statement regarding the arrest and arraignment in Court of a current Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Senator Dino Melaye:

“Sen. Melaye was arraigned in Court by the Police at the Chief Magistrate Court, Wuse, Abuja today for Criminal Conspiracy, causing damage to government property and attempted suicide and escape from lawful custody”

Though thankfully picked up by the media and highlighted in many newspaper headlines, not many Nigerians would have given the charge “Attempted Suicide” a second thought or appreciate its implication. Nor would they realise that had the Police been following the letters of the law as it currently stands in Nigeria, people who had for one reason or another attempted suicide or self-harmed would have been charged, tried and imprisoned, so also those that helped them.

In writing this piece, I have no interest whatsoever in the plight or otherwise of the Senator involved in this charge or in his shenanigans. Neither do I wish to join other Nigerian in castigating our ridiculously deficient law making system and its selfish operators. I also do not intend to talk about the Police as judging by the nature of the charges and the swiftness of their action in this case, it is obvious that they are just doing the bidding of their taskmaster.

My aim is to highlight how our failure to expunge this archaic crime from our statute books morally legalises the way we treat the mentally vulnerable in our society and contribute to the stigma that they experience on a daily basis. That failure, in my opinion, constitutes a shame on the elites for allowing this situation to persist and for failing to do more to protect the most vulnerable amongst us.

So how come that a suicide attempt, an act performed in a heightened state of personal emotional despair with no harm directed at others is considered a crime against the state with anyone aiding and abetting it also considered a criminal?

In early civilisation, suicide was accepted by the society as an act of courage to defend ones dignity and as an honourable way to escape certain shameful or hopeless situation. However, with the advent of the main religions and the enlightenment, suicide was considered an abominable act and a taboo with laws being promulgated against it. Thus began the era of criminalisation of suicide in most civilised countries that lasted for centuries. But with modern civilisation and better understanding of factors that lead to suicide and its associated acts comes the decriminalisation movement that swept through Western Europe in the late 50s and early 60s, leading to laws that specifically decriminalised suicide, for example, The Suicide Act 1961 in England & Wales. Unfortunately the laws of many African countries including Nigeria on suicide have remained stuck in the past as legacy of the colonial masters and have not changed to reflect the modern view of suicide and parasuicidal behaviours.

Those changes in law came about because of better knowledge and understanding of the reasons why people attempts or completes suicide with an alarming discovery that the vast majority of people who die from suicide didn’t actually intend to die from the act. So majority of deaths are accidental deaths from an act that is meant to communicate distress and cry for help. Increasingly, the role of mental disorders and societal anomie leading to temporary emotional distress are being recognised as the immediate precursors of suicide attempts and suicide. Whether that mental vulnerability is temporary for example from a bereavement or job loss or long term as a result of a mental disorder such as depression is irrelevant, what is required is immediate intervention in form of help, care and support rather than a criminal label that further dehumanise and alienate the person.

As of today, The Nigeria Penal Code Chapter 27, Section 327 states “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year” and Section 326 of the same chapter criminalises abetment of suicide.

So in light of what we currently know about suicide and why people attempt it, does this piece of legislation currently make any sense and for how long will it remain on the penal code? Unfortunately, I can’t see this changing anytime soon judging by the failed attempt to repeal the 1958 Lunacy Act by a Mental Health bill which is yet to be passed by the National Assembly since its introduction in 2003!

The irony of this Senator’s case is that the failure of him and his colleagues to do their job has led to him being charged with a crime that should have been consigned into the dustbin of history. Who knows when another VIP in Nigeria would suffer the consequences of not passing that Mental Health Bill and ended up being assaulted in the name of treatment or locked in a “hospital” without appropriate legal safeguards? More chickens may be coming home to roost!

Oluwatayo is a Consultant Psychiatrist & CEO, The Retreat Healthcare, Ikorodu, Lagos