Research team pushing to remove suicide as criminal offence

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By Vishani Ragobeer

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Guyana is among the 20 countries in the world that still considers suicide a crime, with suicide attempts being punishable through fines and imprisonment, but a foreign research team has made it a priority to advocate for the removal of this as a criminal offence.

A team of researchers has travelled to Guyana to conduct a five-year study on suicide in Guyana, cognisant that this country has a high prevalence of suicide and attempted suicide.

The team’s research focuses on the factors contributing to suicide in Guyana and what targeted interventions are necessary to reduce its prevalence.

Dr Christina Hoven, the Director Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group and Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at the Columbia University in the United States of America (USA), are part of the team conducting research in Guyana.

And in addition to the research on suicide, Dr. Hoven stated that the decriminalisation of suicide is a “number one priority” for the group.

This removal of suicide as a criminal offence is expected to be part of the team’s outreach efforts in Guyana, particularly at a Guyana Mental Health and Well-being Conference slated for Novmeber 8 to 11.

Guyana’s Criminal Law Offences Act Chapter 8:01 (97) imposes jail time for persons who attempt suicide. The existing law labels attempted suicide a “misdemeanour” and the individual is liable to two years in prison.

Earlier this year, however, Minister of Health Dr. Frank Anthony emphasised that these punitive measures have no place in Guyana’s healthcare sector. He said that people who attempt suicide should instead be offered specialised services. Dr. Anthony and the Attorney General (AG) Anil Nandlall, SC, have publicly stated that Guyana’s mental health laws will be revamped.

Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a psychiatrist from India and founder of a suicide prevention organisation, is another team member focusing on the decriminalisation of suicide. She has advocated for this in India and has seen that suicide is “more or less” decriminalised in that country.

“There are only 20 countries in which attempted suicide and suicide is still a criminal offence,” she told the News Room on Saturday.

She added, “Majority of the time, the law is not implemented so why have (the) law?”

Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a psychiatrist from India

Research from United for Global Mental Health, a country advocating for the decriminalisation of suicide, has found that of the countries that still treat suicide as a criminal offence, 15 of them (including Guyana) are Commonwealth countries that may have inherited laws from the British but have not engaged in more recent mental health reform. Contrastingly, the United Kingdom itself decriminalised suicide in 1961.

Dr. Vijayakumar acknowledged this and said that punishing people for attempting suicide is archaic. She also emphasised that laws which seek to punish people who need help produce more stigma, ultimately worsening the situation.

Importantly, Dr. Hoven and Dr. Vijayakumar both agreed that there is political will in Guyana for the removal of suicide as a criminal offence.

The Health Ministry offers services at its Mental Health Unit at Quamina Street, Georgetown from 08:00hrs to 16:00hrs on weekdays. There is also the recently launched toll-free 655-SAFE (655-7233) hotline through which persons can access counselling services.

If you or anyone you know is feeling depressed and possibly contemplating suicide, please call the Guyana Inter-agency Suicide Helpline which operates 24 hours and is organised by the Guyana Police Force. Telephone -223-0001, 223-0009, 223-0818 Cellphone – 600-7896, 623-4444.

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