The federal government must lay out a clear timeline and outline tangible plans to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code to decriminalise suicide attempts.
The government must also prioritise its tabling the latest in the upcoming Budget Parliamentary sitting, scheduled to start at the end of October 2021.
The national suicide registry must also be set up immediately to formulate targeted measures to be taken to address the rising suicide rate.
While the law is yet to be amended, there must be a moratorium on all prosecutions on cases of attempted suicide.
While I welcome the recent announcement by the deputy health minister on the government’s intention to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison, with or without a fine, on individuals who survive suicide, there must not be any further delay to repeal this archaic law to ensure that these individuals are given the necessary therapy and support needed.
There is no evidence that criminalising suicide acts as a deterrent, and can actually have a very negative effect, further marginalising people from trying to access much-needed help from mental health services. Decriminalisation of suicide is also a step in making it okay to safely talk about suicide and mental health
This is even more pertinent, especially with the sharp jump in suicides during the Covid-19 pandemic. There were a total of 638 suicides recorded in the first seven months of 2021, as compared to a total of 262 cases for the same period last year, which is a staggering 143 per cent increase in cases. It even surpassed the total number of cases reported in both 2020, which was 631, and 2019m which was 609.
On average, two suicide cases were reported every day in Malaysia between 2019 to May 2021. While Covid-19 cases grew, we cannot deny that the pandemic has played a part in the rising number of suicide cases, as people struggle with job insecurity, isolation, loneliness, as well as mental health concerns.
A recent study that was release revealed the increase of suicide ideation (thought of committing suicide) by 10.81 per cent, attempted suicide by 4.68 per cent and self-harm by 9.68 per cent during the Covid-19 pandemic, in comparison to pre-pandemic days.
Since the government has decided to decriminalise attempted suicide, they should also further step up efforts to prevent suicides by raising awareness and making mental health and counselling services accessible to everyone, especially those in rural areas.
That is why on top of decriminalisation, the government must come up with a holistic plan to address the silent mental health pandemic, including improving mental health services and providing more robust care for people with psychiatric diagnoses.
While awareness and education are important, there is also an urgent need for the government to increase the number of mental health workers to support the nation’s needs and ensure access of quality services to all.
The number of psychiatrists in the country, for instance, is way short of the recommended target. There are only 410 registered psychiatrists in Malaysia with a psychiatrist-to-population ratio of 1.27 to 100,000, far from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended ratio of 1 to 10,000, a 2018 nationwide survey in the Mental Health Services in Malaysia report revealed.
The report by Dr Marhani Midin, Nor Zuraida Zainal, Toh Chin Lee and Nurashikin Ibrahim said only half of the psychiatrists are serving in the Ministry of Health, while the rest are in the education and defence ministries, or in private universities and in clinical practice.
There is still a huge disparity in the distribution of psychiatrists nationwide. Kuala Lumpur has the best ratio of 5.24 per 100,000 population, and Sabah and Kedah have the worst ratio of 0.54 and 0.55 per 100,000 population, respectively.
Certainly, more efforts are needed to meet the immediate dire mental health needs of the population during and after the pandemic. That is why plans to address mental health issues and build community resilience must be a core priority under the 12th Malaysia Plan, which must include a national strategic plan with tangible measures for prevention, intervention and treatment.
This will be in line with this year’s theme for World Mental Health Day on October 10, which is “Mental Health Care for All: Let’s Make It a Reality”.
Dr Kelvin Yii is the Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching.
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