DECRIMINALIZING ATTEMPTED SUICIDE FROM OUR STATUTE BOOKS
If media reports in recent time are anything worthy of attention then one could say without any scintilla of doubt that suicide is commonplace in Ghana.
For instance while the “Daily Graphic” of September 15, 2015 reported that Ghana records 1,500 suicide cases annually as a result of depression , the phenomenon – on Ghanaian University campuses - made the most alarming headlines in the first quarter of this year.
The Law Reforms Commission subsequently submitted a comprehensive report on decriminalizing section 57(2) of Act 29 to the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice.
While applauding the efforts of the commission – although I believe this should have happened long ago – I’m delighted to announce that the well researched report is receiving the utmost attention of the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice.
The Chief Executive Officer of the Mental Health Authority (MHA), Dr. Akwasi Osei blew my mind when he disclosed in an interview recently that, in every reported case of suicide, there were four unreported cases which bring the number of unreported cases in Ghana to nearly 6000 annually.
According to fact sheets of the WHO, nearly 800,000 people commit suicide every year, and that, prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
Suicide was thus the second leading cause of death among the age range of 15 and 29 in 2015 while 78 percent of global suicides occur in low and middle-income countries.
What’s this monster called suicide, and what could probably motivate a person to choose that medium as the best option to exit the land of the living?
Whereas the WHO – just like the Oxford Advanced Learned Dictionary defines suicide as the act of deliberately killing oneself, the Black Law Dictionary says it’s the act of taking one’s own life; thus self-killing; self-destruction; self-murder; felony-de-se; death by one’s own hand.
Transcending the medical conclusions that, suicide is a public health problem, usually sparked by depression – which affects more than 300 million people of all ages annually – Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, posited that, suicide occurs as a consequence of decrease in social integration.
Durkheim thus categorized suicide in four ways: anomic, altruistic, egoistic and fatalistic. In each of the categorizations, he postulates, the causal factor of suicide is break in relationship between an individual and his immediate environment and vice versa.
In an interview with experts on the subject, they all called for the country’s law on suicide to be reviewed in order to reduce the menace of the sordid act.
According to a clinical psychologist, Dr. Samuel Atindanbila, persons who attempt to take their own lives or abet the commission of suicide need counseling to reform rather than being criminalized in line with the Criminal Offences Act.
Pursuant to section 57 of the Criminal Act – 1960 (Act 29), a person who abets the commission of suicide commits a first degree felony whether or not the suicide is actually committed; a person who attempts to commit suicide commits a misdemeanor – which attracts for a punishment, a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years.
In fact, the prosecution must establish two basic elements: “Mens Rea”- guilty mind or intention accompanied by “Actus Reus” (prohibited act) – and must equally prove these two elements beyond a reasonable doubt pursuant to section 13(1) of NRCD.323
What’s unthinkable in all this is how the “Mens Rea” can be established without the influence of any external factors because the two important elements must be proven to achieve a conviction. This alone should probably warrant the repeal of section 57(2) of Act 29 – bearing in mind what could cause a normal human being to decide to take his/her own life.
Dr. Atindanbila, a clinical psychologist disclosed that “every individual has a chemical in the brain known as dopamine hypothesis. When this chemical which is in the brain is reduced to its low level, the individual is under the impulse of the chemical and risks taking off their own lives or others’
A sociologist and lecturer at the University of Ghana, Dr. Joseph Osafo in a consultative discussion with the legal team of the Law Reforms Commission said, “The underlying factor for attempting suicide is psycho-socio-economic.”
“..Attempts have been made over the years to advocate for the decriminalization of section 57(2) of Act 29…a petition was sent to Parliament by lecturers and others in 2012 but there was no response and the law remains same.”
Dr. Sammy Ohene, a consultant Psychiatrist at the Accra Psychiatric hospital and the Psychiatry Unit of the Korle-bu Teaching Hospital also opined inter-alia that, “ suicidal persons are sick people just like someone suffering from any other ailment and that they should be referred for mental health assessment rather than arresting and prosecuting them.”
All said and done, since attempted suicide has been decriminalized long ago in many countries – including South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and even our British colonial masters from whom we inherited the law on attempted suicide, I can hardly fathom why section 57(2) of Act 29 as antiquated as it is still exists in our statute books.