PUNISHMENT FOR FAILING by Jude Serbeh-Boateng

Imagine the frustration of a man who seems to have failed at everything in his life. Then, having convinced himself that there’s nothing left to live for, decides to take his own life. It all goes dark after he struggles to free himself of the rope around his neck. He wakes up in a white room with such bright lights that he had to squint the first few seconds of opening his eyes to see anything. And then all around him are men and women clad in white apparels. He begins to think, and is disappointed, that heaven had not been that special after all—he had expected white angels. He asks, in the voice of a person who knows the answer to his question, “where am I?” He had not heard wrong. He really was at the Intensive Care Unit of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. He couldn’t believe he had failed to take his own life, a feat he had considered the easiest way out. Humiliated, he stretches his hand to pick up the bottle of water that stood tall on the short table beside his bed. That’s the first time he notices that his right hand had been cuffed to the hospital bed. “What the hell is going on here? he screams. He is informed that he is under arrest. His crime? Attempted suicide!

He would find out from the state appointed attorney in the days leading to his trial that this charge was a misdemeanour and that he could do a maximum of three years. In those very difficult times he had convinced himself that the so-called offence of attempted suicide was the State’s way of punishing people like him who were so incompetent that they couldn’t get anything done successfully. He would save everyone the trouble and plead guilty, he thought, and pay for being such a failure! He would do his time and try again next time, bearing in mind the punishment for failing.

PS: The above narrative is not intended to encourage or justify the commission of suicide in and of itself. It aims to throw light on the legal consequences of attempting suicide and how counterproductive it may prove in a criminal justice system. Attempted Suicide is still a criminal offence in Ghana under section 57 of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 Act 29, and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. This law is a vestige from when Ghana was a British colony. In Britain, the law was abolished under the Suicide Act of 1961, which unfortunately has no application in Ghana. Thus, this law that has been jettisoned in its country of origin continues to linger in our books and in that of several other former British colonies around the world.

Once such a law is operative in a criminal justice system the argument that it may not be strictly applied is not tenable because the liberty of citizens cannot be based on the potential goodwill of prosecutors. In December 2018, CNN reported the story of Ifeanyi Ugokwe, a Nigerian citizen who had been arrested for attempting suicide. Although in that country jail terms for survivors are rare, the report emphasised that it is the process of arresting and taking them through a legal process that is particularly cruel.

People with suicidal tendencies should not be treated like criminals. They form part of a wide range of people all over the world who are going through various stages of depression. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that nearly 800,000 people die by suicide in the world each year, which is roughly one death every 40 seconds. And further reports that the major cause of suicide is depression.

In Ghana, there is an enormous stigma around depression. Consequently people with depression have very limited outlets to seek help and people around them would usually, at best, feel extreme pity for them and at worst laugh it off, leaving them to feel as if no one understands what they are feeling or even cares enough to begin to understand, which can be very isolating and overwhelming.

In 2017 when a final year student of the University of Ghana was alleged to have committed suicide, it was the belief of a good section of the public that it was a spiritual issue and that the student body needed prayers and deliverance from whatever devil was pushing them to such lengths. This is a testament to how the Ghanaian society downplay the driving forces of suicide and the effects of victim blaming.

Hopefully, in the not so distant future, the Ghanaian people will come to treat mental health issues with much more concern and give it the serious attention it deserves. And equally important, abolish the law that seeks to criminalize attempting suicide and by so doing set an example for other African countries—Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi—where it is still illegal.