Although an attempt at suicide, from a mental health perspective, is a plea for help, it is at the same time a criminal act that could attract a two-year prison sentence.
It is for this reason that the Caribbean Voice is vociferously advocating for suicide to be stricken from the law books as a crime. Caribbean Voice is a Non Governmental organisation [NGO] with a local and international presence which embraces an anti-violence stance.
According to Coordinator of its Guyana Chapter, Mr. Nazim Hussain, “because suicide is a crime, it is the reason why so many people end up self-harming and dying…strangulation of themselves [hanging] and drinking poison.”
In fact he disclosed recently that based on statistics, those who died as a result of self-harm might have tried as much as 20 to 25 times before they were successful. Seeking the requisite help is often not an option when families become aware that one of their members attempted suicide. This, Hussain said, is due to the criminalisation of the act of suicide and its associated penalty. He is of the firm belief though that “if it [suicide] was decriminalised persons’ relatives would have ensured that they seek and get the requisite mental health support. But because it is criminalised when you attempt, and thankfully do not die, your parents, spouses or whoever are not going to take you to get mental health treatment because they would be fearful; it’s a crime…you could be imprisoned for two years for trying to take your own life.”
As part of its anti-violence efforts, Caribbean Voice has been helping through its emphatic communication programme to help address the problem of suicide. According to Hussain, oftentimes suicide is preceded by evident behavioural change. These changes, he noted, should not be taken for granted. “This [behavioural change] can be a suicide warning sign…there are several other signs that these people display [too], perhaps not consciously,” Hussain added.
For this reason, Hussain noted that Caribbean Voice is fervent in its advocacy to have suicide decriminalised.
As part of its advocacy, Caribbean Voice, through yet another of its representatives, Annan Boodram, has been urging that all media refrain from using the term ‘committed suicide’ to refer to the act whereby someone dies by suicide. According to Boodram, by way of a letter which was disseminated to the media last year, “Suicide prevention activists and organizations argue that the word ‘commit’ has certain negative connotations and associations such as in ‘criminals commit crimes’.”
Boodram also noted that in spite of the archaic law in Guyana that criminalises attempted suicide, suicide is not a crime but a mental health issue, especially given that all triggers lead to either depression or anxiety which in turn catalyses suicide ideation and suicide itself.
“Suicide prevention activists and organizations are requesting that the replacement terms be ‘died by suicide’ or ‘is a suicide victim’. Also, instead of ‘reducing suicide’ or ‘suicide reduction,’ please use ‘creating suicide free [or suicide freer] communities’.”
The goal of activists, Boodram added, is not to reduce suicide since one suicide is one too many. As such, the goal should be to work to create suicide freer communities that would eventually result in suicide free communities, Boodram has outlined.
Although representatives of Caribbean Voice were not able to share any suicide statistics at a recent forum, Guyana up to August last year was embracing trends that were highlighted by PAHO/WHO Director, Dr. William Adu-Krow, which suggested that Guyana’s suicide rate had plummeted to 20.6 per 100,000 people.
In 2012 Guyana was reported to have the highest suicide rate in the world. However, by 2015, when a Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] review was conducted, it was found that the rate had considerably declined.
A 2012 WHO report indicated that Guyana had a suicide rate of 44.2 per 100,000 people, and that for every single female suicide, there were 3.2 male suicides. By comparison, it was revealed that neighbouring territories Suriname had a suicide rate of 27.8 per 100,000, and Venezuela’s rate was 2.6 per 100,000.
“I just want to say that a lot of things are happening and sometimes people dwell on the negatives all the time. Granted that we are not off that list but we are getting off that list,” said the PAHO/WHO Representative of Guyana’s declining suicide rate.
As part of its efforts to help low and middle income countries like Guyana combat the scourge of suicide, WHO developed the Mental Health Gap Action Programme [mhGAP] which is aimed at scaling up services for people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders.
In its quest to combat the evident scourge of suicide, the Ministry of Public Health had announced plans to continue a number of ‘suicide deterrent’ measures. Among the measures that have been revealed by the Ministry are efforts to ensure that existing laws and regulations regarding pesticide sale, use and storage are enforced.
Added to this, moves were slated to be made to train at least 50 percent of Primary Health Care doctors in mhGAP-Intervention Guide. The programme asserts that with proper care, psychosocial assistance and medication, many people could be treated for depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, prevented from [choosing] suicide, and begin to lead normal lives even where resources are scarce.