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10/01/2010

Alternative medicine in Ghana part three: The crime of killing yourself

Dr. Sammy Ohene, left, says people who attempt suicide should be treated in hospitals, not jails. Photo by Shawn Hayward.  

 

By Shawn Hayward

As if being depressed to the point of trying to commit suicide isn’t bad enough, imagine being arrested and locked up for it.

Attempting suicide is illegal in Ghana according to Section 57 (2) of the 1960 Criminal Code, which classifies efforts to take one's own life as a criminal offence. It's a sanction that only aggravates the problems that lead patients to self-harm in the first place, according to Dr. Sammy Ohene, Head of Psychiatry at Ghana Medical School.

"The pressing issue should be dealing with your depression, not furthering your woes by prosecuting you for being ill," he says. "I think it's absolutely wrong. It shows a lack of understanding in the mechanisms behind suicide attempts."

Dr. Ohene says he's seen people imprisoned from six months to two years for trying to take their own lives. The stigma of imprisonment adds to the shame of attempting suicide in a country where it’s a taboo subject.

"They can even feel they deserve punishment," says Dr. Ohene. "One thing you feel when you are depressed is guilt. It might worsen their symptoms or make them more likely to feel that there is indeed no hope for them."

The law criminalizing attempted suicide was inherited from colonial British rule and Dr. Ohene feels the time has come to take if off the books. He's one of several mental health professionals who make up the Network for Anti Suicide and Crisis Intervention, a group lobbying the Minister of the Interior to repeal the law.

Currently, however, the campaign faces challenges from traditional Ghanaian culture. Suicide is a dirty word in this country, to the point that it's not used as a cause of death by coroners, who opt for the more palatable euphemism, "unnatural causes."

Patients are often too ashamed to admit they have suicidal thoughts.
"They are even not very likely to talk about it with a doctor," Dr. Ahene says. "You have to drag it out of them because they believe it's totally wrong to even think about the subject."

That makes it difficult for the medical community to know how grave the problem of suicide is in Ghana, but it appears serious. One study recently surveyed 4,500 students in three Accra secondary schools. It found that one third of the students have considered suicide as a way to escape their problems.

Dr. Ohene was surprised by the results.
"I didn't imagine that for so many people, this was a considered option," he says.

The treatment of mental diseases in Ghana is decades behind that of the developed world, which treats it as a mental health issue, not a criminal one. Ghana’s justice system has been slow to realize that people with mental health problems need treatment, not jail time.

Dr. Ohene and his colleagues are pushing to update Ghana’s laws to bring them closer to a modern understanding of suicide and mental illness in general.

"That's a world of difference between treatment and going to jail for being ill," he says. "I think it's completely uncivilized that if someone is ill, we should punish them."

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