Suicide is not a crime, sufferers need help and counselling
There are so many misconceptions and stigmas that continue to surround suicide.
I could’ve done a jig when news of legal reforms in the UAE first broke last weekend. While all of them were important milestones in their own right, there was one I personally celebrated: the decriminalisation of suicide attempts.
Six years ago, in the wake of a media frenzy surrounding a certain high-profile celebrity suspected to have died by suicide, I did an extensive piece on suicide prevention for the WKND magazine. The issue was, after all, an insidious global reality — even if not many were openly talking about it.
I had to tiptoe around the reporting though, speaking to suicide survivors and helpline directors based outside the country, instead of quoting local sources as we usually would — simply because we wanted to avoid the legal ramifications that might arise from speaking to anyone who’d attempted the act here (suicide being punishable by law at the time).
I remember the reactions we received to the story. So many readers reached out wanting to either know how they could help — or where they could get help. A conversation ignited among total strangers but, as expected, fizzled out without the backing of the law.
But the news that, from now on, people who’d harmed — or attempted to harm — themselves would be referred to a doctor and not a judge is one that is, without a doubt, being hailed by mental health advocates across the country. It’s a treatment-over-punishment approach that promises multiple advantages.
We’re talking open dialogue, which will lead to the creation of stronger resources: workshops, support groups (official, not underground, and therefore easily accessible), even a national hotline. That’s the one I can’t wait to see. “No one’s trying to rescue people with one phone call,” a former India-based helpline director once told me. “But a helpline is critical because it provides that human connection and allows that moment of distress to pass away.”
Self-preservation is a mighty motivator, and most people really just want someone to give them reason to believe it’s going to be okay. As a former survivor once explained, “If you’re contemplating suicide and you reach out for help and realise there is no help, no phone number to call, no one to talk to, that’s going to make it extremely difficult to change your mind about pulling yourself out of the situation you’re in.” I would wager that the majority of those in despair would give anything to connect with someone who can talk them down and ‘off the ledge’ when they think all is lost.
Which brings us to education. There are so many misconceptions and stigmas that continue to surround suicide — from the idea that talking about it will only encourage the act to the notion that the suicidal are only seeking attention. Statistics actually indicate otherwise. For too many, suicide ideation is not an overnight impulse — but a thought process they haven’t been able to escape for a while. It is truly unfortunate that, sometimes, several factors combine and culminate in sufferers spiralling and attempting the unthinkable. But if more people were aware of the signs to watch out for, or what to do if they suspected a loved one was contemplating the act, they would be better-placed to offer support.
One thing we can expect to happen with the decriminalising of suicide is the encouraging of truer statistical records. The World Health Organization posits that for each adult who died by suicide, globally, there may have been more than 20 others attempting it. In the absence of punitive measures, we will hopefully gain a much clearer picture of ground realities, which will only aid efforts to tackle this social malaise.
I’ll offer one last reason why this move merits applause. It is in a country’s interests to see those who once attempted suicide successfully integrate back into society. This would hardly be a smooth transition if one has a criminal conviction to one’s name. Such a record would greatly hamper any future employment opportunities, and instead throw one right back into the throes of depression.
Suicide is still illegal in several more countries around the world (even Singapore repealed its ‘suicide is a crime’ law earlier this year). The UAE is just the latest to join the ranks of those who recognise that there are better ways to support those who need help. More power to them for it.
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