July 24, 2024

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Campaign to decriminalise suicide in four Caribbean nations gains momentum | Mental health

4 min read

Pressure to decriminalise suicide in four Caribbean nations is mounting as a new coalition has come together for the first time to fight for the repeal of colonial-era laws.

A group of people with experience of poor mental health, government officials, activists, legal experts and healthcare workers, led by organisations in the Caribbean, will advocate for legislative reform. They want to reduce barriers for people seeking help and ensure that mental health services can operate without fear of legal repercussions and ultimately save lives.

Suicide is illegal in St Lucia, Grenada, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago, and attempted suicide is punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine. The laws were introduced by the British during colonial rule. Suicide was decriminalised in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1960s – it has never been a crime under Scottish law.

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A common condition


The human toll of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is huge and rising. These illnesses end the lives of approximately 41 million of the 56 million people who die every year – and three quarters of them are in the developing world.

NCDs are simply that; unlike, say, a virus, you can’t catch them. Instead, they are caused by a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioural factors. The main types are cancers, chronic respiratory illnesses, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – heart attacks and stroke. Approximately 80% are preventable, and all are on the rise, spreading inexorably around the world as ageing populations and lifestyles pushed by economic growth and urbanisation make being unhealthy a global phenomenon.

NCDs, once seen as illnesses of the wealthy, now have a grip on the poor. Disease, disability and death are perfectly designed to create and widen inequality – and being poor makes it less likely you will be diagnosed accurately or treated.

Investment in tackling these common and chronic conditions that kill 71% of us is incredibly low, while the cost to families, economies and communities is staggeringly high.

In low-income countries NCDs – typically slow and debilitating illnesses – are seeing a fraction of the money needed being invested or donated. Attention remains focused on the threats from communicable diseases, yet cancer death rates have long sped past the death toll from malaria, TB and HIV/Aids combined.

‘A common condition’ is a Guardian series reporting on NCDs in the developing world: their prevalence, the solutions, the causes and consequences, telling the stories of people living with these illnesses.

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Although the laws are rarely enforced in the Caribbean and many people don’t know they exist, there have been reports of arrests. The laws continue to be used to threaten people, according to coalition member Desarie Nicholas, a social worker and the founder of Caricope Wellness Alliance, an organisation that offers mental health support to Caribbean people.

“I had a client who was getting out of psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt and she was told, ‘You have to keep checking in with us every month because if you don’t, you know we can send you to jail’,” said Nicholas. “How does that help them feel nurtured and safe and willing to really be honest about how they feel? This law informs everything we do and the way we think about things.”

Around the world, there are 25 countries where attempted suicide remains a crime and 27 where the status of legal frameworks remains unclear, according to Decriminalise Suicide Worldwide, a global campaign by Lifeline International.

The move to repeal laws in the Caribbean comes at a time when several countries, including Guyana, Pakistan, Ghana and Malaysia, have got rid of similar colonial-era laws criminalising suicide.

It follows the Bridgetown Declaration, adopted at the Small Island Developing States ministerial conference on non-communicable diseases and mental health last year, where members committed to decriminalise suicide.

Dr Timothy Morgan, director of the mental health unit at the Ministry of Health in Guyana, where in 2022 the suicide prevention bill repealed the law that made suicide a criminal offence and replaced it with a national suicide prevention plan, said: “Even though it is uncommon for those attempting suicide to be charged or imprisoned in Guyana, the previous law only added another layer of legal complexity to those experiencing emotional distress from contemplating suicide and needing mental healthcare.”

More than 700,000 people globally die by suicide every year, about three-quarters (77%) in low- and middle-income countries. It is the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.

Reducing the global suicide mortality rate by a third by 2030 is a target of the UN sustainable development goals and the World Health Organization, which says laws that make suicide and suicide attempts illegal remain an impediment to meeting this goal. The WHO has released a guide on decriminalising suicide for policymakers, with explanations of how countries have managed it.

  • International helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14


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