Instead of Punishing Suicide, Start with Empathy and Care
Updated: Jun 29
By Lim Su Lin, Research and Advocacy Officer, SOLS Health
Have you ever stopped to wonder what runs through the mind of a person who thinks about wanting to take their own life?
Say this person happened to be a friend: what is the first thing you would say to him or her?
Would you tell him to stop, or else be punished? Do you think they would stop, for fear of committing a crime?
The Suicide Law in Malaysia
In Malaysia, suicide attempts are treated as a criminal offence under Section 309 of the Penal Code. Section 309 P.C., or the “suicide law”, is a legacy of the British common law, instituted during the British colonial era and continued post-Independence, which punishes suicide attempters with fines or terms of imprisonment.
The reasoning behind this law is that a person will refrain from modelling a suicidal person’s behaviour, if the behaviour is followed by punishment or unpleasant consequences. Beyond the law, cultural and religious elements also shape the understanding that the wilful attempt to end one’s own life is a sinful act.
Whether to deter suicidal behaviour in the community or to preserve moral principles, what is clear is that the current legal position largely fails to uphold the wellbeing of the very people it is meant to protect.
As a community-based mental health provider challenging the stigma of mental health, SOLS Health disagrees with the view that treats suicide attempt as a crime. The following are some reasons:
There is no solid evidence to prove that punishing suicide has a deterrent effect. Comparative studies have shown that there is no significant difference in suicide rates among the countries that did/did not punish suicide. In fact, over the long term, suicide rates actually declined in those countries that decriminalised.
Framing suicide attempts as a crime implies that suicidal people are somehow culpable for wanting to end their lives. It puts suicide on par with acts of manslaughter or homicide; but in one, there is deliberate intention of harming or endangering lives. In the other, the harm is done to oneself, and usually without intention to cause fatal injury/ harm to others. The two are decidedly not the same, and should not be treated in the same manner.
Assigning fault and blame does not help those struggling with suicidal thoughts to change their perspective- on the contrary, it reinforces shame, encouraging the suicidal to conceal their struggles and avoid seeking help. In extreme situations, the threat of punishment may push some to be even more determined to “complete” their suicide successfully, in order to avoid punishment if they were to survive.
Replace Punishment with a More Care-Based Approach
COVID-19 has exposed profound mental health fissures within the Malaysian population, that are likely to prevail long beyond the immediate crisis.
Section 309, which punishes those who experience such severe psychological and emotional distress to the point of attempting suicide, may do more harm than good, in adding to the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and of seeking help.
A repeal of the current suicide law is much needed, with a view to replacing it with an alternative law that does not utilize punishment as a deterrent.
Instead of using punishment, better support systems should be provided for people to deal with the causes of their distress. This includes increasing access to quality medical and psychological services at primary healthcare level, and establishing strong pathways to seek support in the community. Community leaders should be trained to detect symptoms of suicidal intent among members of their respective groups, and to refer them to appropriate help where needed.
In the longer journey of destigmatizing mental illnesses in our society, these actions will collectively help to shift society’s perspective away from seeing mental health as a shameful or taboo subject, towards one is more open and accepting of mental health struggles.
Every life on this earth is precious and valuable. Whether impulsive or planned, those who attempt to take their own lives need to be heard and assisted to receive help, whether that be in the form of psychological treatment or informal support. At the moment, the current provisions of Section 309 P.C. do not support this.
There needs to be greater momentum towards repealing the archaic law, while also changing our culture to one that extends compassion and support to suicidal persons.