Decriminalising suicide – a pathway to compassionate mental health crisis support

  • Rearview of people from around the world hugging each other

September 2023

Opinion Piece by Thilini Perera, CEO of LifeLine International

In a world in which people are experiencing increased mental health pressures post COVID-19, alongside the impacts of natural disasters and military conflicts a significant shift is underway across the intersection of legal frameworks, stigma, crisis support and suicide prevention. 

The recent wave of countries decriminalising suicide is not just a legal manoeuvre, it’s a powerful statement acknowledging that mental health is a universal human right and people experiencing a crisis deserve understanding, support, and care.

Ghana’s decision to decriminalise suicide, following in the footsteps of Guyana and Pakistan, illustrates a global movement to dismantle out-of-date laws. The laws in Ghana, for instance, were introduced through the British Penal Code during colonialisation and deemed suicide an offence punishable by imprisonment or fines. The repeal of these laws marks a victory for advocates who have long argued that suicide should be regarded as a mental health issue, not a criminal act. 

In countries where decriminalisation of suicide is occurring, crisis support systems are expanding, helplines are being enhanced, and mental health budgets are being allocated to community organisations. While decriminalisation is not a panacea, it stands as a testament to progressive change, offering a glimmer of hope for individuals who experience a crisis.

The importance of crisis support services cannot be overstated. They are the lifelines that bridge the gap between despair and hope, offering immediate assistance to those in their darkest hours. Crisis lines provide a critical touchpoint in the journey towards mental health. They offer a compassionate ear, a non-judgmental space, and a source of comfort for individuals in crisis. This becomes even more essential after decriminalisation, as individuals feel safer to reach out without fear of legal repercussions.

As countries progress towards decriminalisation, crisis support services stand ready to play a pivotal role in this transformation. These services offer a space where individuals can disclose their struggles openly and seek the support of others during their darkest moments, drawing on the foundation of empathy and understanding.

Each year, over 700,000 lives are lost to suicide globally, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries. The WHO has declared suicide prevention a public health priority. The movement towards decriminalisation of suicide aligns seamlessly with the World Health Organisation’s theme for the 2023 World Mental Health Day, “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right.” 

Research shows laws that criminalise suicide are an ineffective deterrent to suicide, instead creating barriers to individuals seeking help, while discriminating against them, and perpetuating stigma and ill-informed attitudes towards those experiencing a suicidal crisis.

Criminalisation not only denies individuals their right to non-judgemental support, but also compounds their suffering by branding their distress as criminal. This approach obstructs the path to immediate support and longer-term health treatments. They ultimately undermine suicide prevention efforts. 

The removal of these laws fosters environments where individuals are empowered to seek help without fear of legal consequences. Nations taking this step are making a profound commitment to the wellbeing of their citizens.

Cultural shifts, however, come with challenges. Where changes have been made to decriminalise suicide, coordinated efforts from policymakers, mental health professionals, and communities have occurred. Decriminalisation paves the way for open dialogues on social and cultural factors and ways to destigmatise mental health crisis and conditions. These can be challenging conversations.

As more countries join this movement to decriminalise suicide, a new global chapter is being written – one that prioritises mental health as an essential part of human well-being and a universal human right. The union of decriminalisation and crisis support is not just about legal change, it’s a testament to humanity’s collective commitment to lifting each other up in times of need.


Read our position statement on the Decriminalisation of Suicide (August 2023)