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MoH wants suicide declared public health emergency

THE STAR 08/3/2022

About 1,460 people die by suicide in Kenya each year; men are double the number of women

The Acting DG Dr Patrick Amoth . View pictures in App save up to 80% data.
The Acting DG Dr Patrick Amoth . Image: MoH/Twitter

The Ministry of Health now wants mental health declared a national public health emergency to stop runaway cases of suicide.

This is the country's loudest health alarm bell signifying a situation that is going out of control.

The ministry also recommended that attempted suicide should be decriminalised in Kenya.

While this may not directly reduce cases of people trying to kill themselves, it will reduce the stigma and encourage them to seek medical help instead, acting director general for health Patrick Amoth said.

Under Section 226 of the Penal Code, attempted suicide is a misdemeanour punishable by two years imprisonment or a fine or both.

However, courts have for years not jailed anyone under that law, but instead, send them to Mathari Mental Hospital where they are detained for prolonged periods.

Amoth on Tuesday said past attempts to amend the law were unsuccessful.

“We once tried to amend the law but we’re told by the [National Assembly] Health Committee trying to make major amendments to the penal code was unnecessary,” he said in Nairobi, where he launched the Suicide Prevention Strategy 2021-2026.

Last year, senators also moved to expunge suicide from the list of crimes in the Penal Code through the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 2021, sponsored by nominated Senator Abshiro Halake.

The Bill was stuck at second reading before Parliament broke for elections and would have to be reintroduced afresh once the new House is constituted.

Only about 20 countries in the world still criminalise suicide, an old religious law that descended from Europe in the fifth century.

The policy estimated that about 1,460 people die by suicide in Kenya each year.

Globally, 700,000 persons are estimated to die by suicide every year with most of the deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries, WHO says.

Rachel Maina from the Clinical Psychologists Association of Kenya said the Kenyan figures are grossly underestimated because of data collection gaps.

WHO estimated that for every completed suicide, there have been more than 20 attempts by others.

Maina said Kenya’s new policy mainly aims to reduce suicide deaths by 10 per cent by 2026.

The policy aims to achieve this by decriminalising attempts and having the government declare mental ill health a National Public Health Emergency.

“It is also calling for a national suicide prevention programme with the role to restrict means, conduct surveillance, education, and improve access to treatment,” she said.

Maina is a member of the technical working group that developed the policy.

She said there is evidence twice more men die by suicide than women.

“This is because men use lethal ways than women so women are saved more. Men are not more suicidal than women only that women are less successful in their attempts,” she said.

More than 58 per cent of all suicide deaths are before 50 years. In most cases, a verbal autopsy reveals the victim was battling depression.

President of the Kenya Psychiatrists Association Boniface Chitayi called for more financing for suicide prevention.

“It’s as a result of mental illness and no Kenyan should be punished for attempting suicide. The bottom line of suicidal behaviour is mental illness,” he said.

“That means Section 226 has no place in Kenyan law. We are moving from punishment as a deterrent and toward scientifically proven means.”

However, even if the law is amended, assisting someone to die by suicide will remain illegal, the experts said.

In Kenya, data on intentional self-harm is difficult to distinguish from cases of accident or homicide.

The prevalence of common mental illnesses in Kenya which include depression and anxiety disorders is about 10.3 per cent.

“Additionally, 42 per cent of those attending general medical facilities in Kenya have symptoms of severe depression,” the policy says.

 “Suicidal thoughts associated with depression lifetime prevalence is estimated at 7.9 per cent, and for other mental illness is estimated at 5-8 per cent.”

Edited by Kiilu Damaris

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