Govt aiming to decriminalise attempted suicide by year-end

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A suicide prevention Bill that will seek amendments to the laws regarding suicide in Guyana could be tabled in the National Assembly this year, Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony has said.

The amendments will see changes to the “outdated” laws against suicide, the health minister said, as he delivered remarks at the opening of the three-day Guyana Mental Health and Well- Being Conference, at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre on Monday.

The event was a collaborative effort among the Government of Guyana, the US-based National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Health, and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) with assistance from Columbia University.

“When you look at our laws, our laws are really outdated. It goes back to the time of the British and even in the 1930s and you might know that apart of those laws, if you attempt suicide in Guyana, then you can be jailed for at least two years and that is still on the books,” Dr Anthony explained.

“We haven’t used it for a while but from the stats you have seen for every person who commits suicide there are at least 20 persons who would have attempted suicide, so technically if we have 147 persons who died of suicide over the last year, then multiply that by 20, you can see how many people would have ended up in jail,” the minister said.

Guyana’s Criminal Law Offences Act Chapter 8:01 imposes jail time for persons who attempt suicide. The existing law labels attempted suicide a “misdemeanour” and the individual is liable to two years in prison.

Minister Anthony said over the last four years, there were discussions in Parliament when PAHO was seeking to take the lead on raising awareness on the matter but was unsuccessful. 

“Over the last couple of months, however, I’ve spoken to my colleague at the Attorney General’s Office, Minister Nandlall, and we have been able to do a draft suicide prevention bill. Hopefully we can get that on the Parliamentary agenda, and if we do this year, then we’ll be able to pass it and change those old things that have been there that do not really create an enabling environment in what we need to do to prevent suicide,” he said. 

He said other laws are surrounding mental health in Guyana are “particularly problematic.”

“One in the way that they have classified mental health illnesses, psychiatric illnesses, they’re totally outdated. Some of the terminologies that are being used are not in keeping with what we would like to see in a modern mental health architecture and these things have to be changed,” Dr Anthony said. 

Dr. Christina Hoven, Director Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group and Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at the Columbia University in the United States of America (USA) during her address at the conference also stated that the criminalisation of suicide has been preventing persons from seeking help. She said the decriminalisation of suicide is “hope on its way”.

Dr. Christina Hoven, the Director Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group and Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia University

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