Experts and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the mental health space have advocated for the decriminalisation of suicide in Nigeria to reduce its negative impact on affected persons.
They made the appeal in Abuja at a media conference to mark the 2023 World Suicide Prevention Day.
Commemorated every year on Sept. 10, it has “Creating hope through action” as the triennial theme from 2021-2023.
The day was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Its aim is to focus attention on the issues, reduce stigma and create awareness with the message that suicide can be prevented.
Mr Ameh Abba, the Founder, Mandate Health Empowerment Initiative (MHEI), said that the impact of suicide in the present dispensation could not be overemphasised.
He added that it was important to ensure adequate and increased awareness creation and advocacy for suicide prevention.
“We also intend to see how we will come up with strategic programmes that will drive the suicide decriminalisation activity in Nigeria; you will agree with me that it is not new, suicide has been existing since 2000 BC.
“So we want to see how we can curtail the impact of suicide by decriminalising it,” he said.
Mr Chime Asonye, Founder, Nigerian Mental Health, said that over 30 organisations, including professional organisations and CSOs, came together to work towards decriminalising attempted suicide.
According to him, if the nation wants the Mental Health Act to gain traction, it has to ensure that suicide is not criminalised so that people can get the help they need when they need it.
“They don’t want to do it because they are scared to identify if they have suicidal ideations. It’s also colonial policy and against best practices, and worst of all, places and countries where suicide is criminalised have women suicide rates increase,” he said.
The Executive Director, African Public Health Institute, Dr John Ikolo, said that to prevent suicide in Nigeria and Africa, emphasis must be placed on ensuring that mental health education was carried out at all levels, particularly at the grassroots level.
He added that instead of sentencing those that attempted suicide to prison, some kind of social work or services could be assigned to them.
The Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Prof. Ali Pate, said that suicide had become a global problem of public health concern.
Represented by the Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), Mr Adebayo Peters, Pate said that suicide was a major preventable cause of premature death, influenced by psycho-social, cultural and environmental risk factors.
“Some of these drivers or risk factors include history of existing mental disorders, undiagnosed mental health problems, alcohol and substance abuse, isolation, significant life events like loss of loved ones or relationships and unemployment.
“There is nothing good about suicide. For every suicide, the consequences extend beyond the loss of life to the families and communities affected by that loss.
“Many who have lost their loved ones to suicide never recovered from the devastating effect,” he added.
Pate, however, said that there were evidence-based strategies which had been tested and proven to prevent suicide.
They include strengthening economic support, improving access to qualitative and affordable mental health services, creation of protective environment by reducing access to lethal means among people at risk of suicide.
Others are promoting connectedness by peer norm programme and community engagement, teaching, coping and problem solving skills and identifying and supporting people at risk of suicide,
The minister said that defining suicide as a public health problem, rather than a clinical problem, was a paradigm shift that had significant implications in addressing it.
He also said that some progress had been made in Nigeria to address the issue.
They include the presidential assent to the National Mental Act 2021 which replaced the archaic lunacy law of 1958.
The Act is expected to help increase access to mental health services for all Nigerians and ensure the rights of people living with mental health conditions are protected and respected.
Also, the finalisation of the National Suicide Prevention Strategic Framework which would be able to guide all stakeholders on the actions to take in suicide prevention.
He added that there was an on-going development of the implementation roadmap for the Mental Health Act.
Mr Tunde Ojo, the National Coordinator, National Mental Health Programme, said that the country now had 10 Federal Psychiatric Hospitals as two had been added recently to help in addressing human resource gap.
He, however, said that in spite of that, the treatment gap for mental health in Nigeria was 90 per cent.
“That means that for every 10 people that needs mental health services, only one of them is able to get it because the few services that are available are in the cities, also the brain drain and emigration of health workers.
“However, if you look at the policy document, we are not closing down the psychiatric hospitals.
“So our approach going forward is integration of mental health into existing programmes into primary health care level because that is the closest to the people and that is public health.
“That is de-stigmatising it. That is taking it to the last mile and that is the direction that the government of the country is taking,” he said.
Dr Alexander Chimbaru, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Deputy Representative to Nigeria, said that the theme was to inspire confidence and light in everyone.
It aims to empower individuals to be in charge of their lives and value the only one life they have.
“Creating hope through action highlights the importance of setting suicide prevention as a priority public health agenda by countries including Nigeria, particularly where access to mental health services and availability of evidence-based interventions are low.
“Suicide continues to remain a serious public health concern with a profound impact on all.
“Globally, it is estimated that over 700,000 people commit suicide annually with 77 per cent of the cases occurring in low-and-middle- income countries.
“For every suicide, there are likely 20 other people making a suicide attempt and many more have serious thoughts of suicide,” he said.
According to Chimbaru, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds.
He, however, said that suicides were preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost interventions.