By: Lim Su Lin, Research and Advocacy Associate, SOLS Health
After attempting suicide by jumping from the balcony of his flat in Cheras, a man was recently sentenced to a RM 3,000 fine or three months in jail by the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate Court. News reports further stated that the court had imposed this sentence “as a lesson for inconveniencing many parties” through his act.
An Archaic and Outdated Law
Regrettably, in Malaysia, suicide attempts are still treated as a criminal offence under Section 309 of the Penal Code. Section 309, or the “suicide law”, is a relic of the common law instituted during British colonial rule. It punishes those who attempt suicide with fines or terms of imprisonment.
A possible rationale for this law to safeguard social order and deter suicidal behaviour in the community.
SOLS Health, as a community-based mental health provider challenging the stigma of mental health, strongly disagrees with the view that treats suicide attempt as a crime.
We believe that criminalizing suicide is not helpful or effective in deterring attempted suicide. Not only is this position insensitive to the well-being of those who are already stretched to the point of wanting to take their lives, it also serves to reinforce harmful, misguided notions that suicidal people are dangerous or a threat to society.
Rather than acting as a deterrent, our country’s current take on suicide only leads to fear and greater prejudice towards individuals who attempt to take their lives, and their families.
As a further consequence, those on the verge of contemplating suicide may seek, under stigma and fear, to conceal the facts of their attempt, making it even more improbable for them to ever receive proper medical or psychiatric help and attention.
In the much longer journey of destigmatizing mental illnesses in our society, a shift in perspective is much needed, away from seeing mental health as a shameful or taboo subject, towards an approach that encourages open healthy and necessary conversations on the topic.
To this end, decriminalizing suicide by repealing Section 309 is a much-needed step.
A repeal of the suicide law will help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage vulnerable Malaysians to seek help. It will help spark more open conversations about mental well-being and clear misconceptions that contribute to the stigma of seeking professional help.
The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has produced profound mental health consequences for the general population, and its impacts are likely to continue to prevail for a long time. Stress, anxiety, fears and loneliness are just some of the psychological issues that have come to the fore in the midst of the pandemic.
Instead of using punishment as a deterrent for suicidal behaviour, the government should look to providing better support for people to deal with the causes of their distress. Increasing access to quality medical and psychological help is a crucial element of this support.
Every life on this earth is precious and valuable. Whether impulsive or planned, those who attempt to take their own lives have tragically lost sight of this, due to severe psychological and emotional distress. Such individuals need to be heard and supported. Instead of being blamed and punished, they should be assisted to get the help they need.