MP SPEAKS | The federal government must lay out a clear timeline and tangible plans to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code to decriminalise suicide attempts and prioritise its tabling in the upcoming budget parliamentary sitting scheduled to start at the end of October.
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 Deputy Health Minister Aaron Ago Dagang on the government’s intention to amend the Penal Code to decriminalise 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.
Section 309 of the Penal Code carries a penalty of up to one year in prison, with or without a fine, on individuals who survive suicide.
There is no evidence that criminalising suicide acts as a deterrent; it can actually have a very negative effect by further marginalising people from trying to access the much-needed help from mental health services.
Decriminalisation of suicide is also one way 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 was a total of 638 suicides recorded in the first seven months of 2021, as compared with 262 cases for the same period last year; this is a staggering 143 percent increase in cases.
It has even surpassed the total number of cases reported in 2020, which is 631, and 609 in 2019.
On average, two suicide cases were reported every day in Malaysia between 2019 and May 2021. While Covid-19 cases grew in number, 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 recently released study revealed that suicide ideation (thought of committing suicide) had increased by 10.81 percent, attempted suicide (4.68 percent) and self-harm (9.68 percent) during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, since the government is making moves to decriminalise attempted suicide, it should also further step up efforts to prevent suicide by raising awareness and making mental health and counselling services accessible to everyone, especially those in rural areas.
Besides decriminalisation, the government must also come up with a holistic plan to address the 'silent mental health pandemic', including improving mental health services and providing more robust care towards people with a current psychiatric diagnosis.
While awareness and education are good, there is an urgent need for the government to increase the number of mental health workers to support the nation’s needs and ensure access to quality services to all.
The number of psychiatrists in the country, for instance, is way short of the target. There were only 410 registered psychiatrists in Malaysia, with a psychiatrist-to-population ratio of 1.27:100,000, which is far from the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio of 1:10,000, 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 were serving the Health Ministry while the rest were in the Education or 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 direction or plans to address mental health issues and build community resilience must be a core priority even under the 12th Malaysia Plan, which must include a national strategic plan with tangible measures for prevention, intervention and treatment.
This in line with this year’s theme (Oct 10) for World Mental Health Day: 'Mental health care for all: Let’s make it a reality'.
DR KELVIN YII is Bandar Kuching MP and chairperson of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, Science and Innovation.
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