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Aware says suicide laws ‘worsen distress’; calls for changes

SINGAPORE — Noting that the criminalisation of suicide can further distress those already in need of help, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) yesterday renewed its call to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code, which makes attempted suicide an offence.

Aware says suicide laws ‘worsen distress’; calls for changes

Reuters file photo

SINGAPORE — Noting that the criminalisation of suicide can further distress those already in need of help, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) yesterday renewed its call to repeal Section 309 of the Penal Code, which makes attempted suicide an offence.

It also urged the authorities to amend the Criminal Procedure Code such that attempted suicide is no longer a seizable offence or an offence that triggers mandatory reporting.

Aware’s call for suicide law reform was made in a press release issued ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on Saturday.

The gender equality group said there is a need to develop an institutionalised response system for suicide attempts, such as training all police officers in psychological first aid, or setting up a specialised unit within the police force to respond to suicide attempts.

Greater mental health support for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, as well as ensuring awareness and training for those who work with vulnerable populations, such as teachers and other school staff, are also needed.

Singapore has seen an average of 400 suicides and 1,000 cases of attempted suicides each year between 2010 and 2014.

While attempted suicide incidents led to five criminal cases being filed and one person charged in 2014, arrests in such cases were frequent, Aware said. There were 901 in 2014, up from 862 in 2013.

The fear of the law coming after them can also deter people who self-harm from seeking help, since police officers may misconstrue, or wrongly equate, deliberate self-harm with suicide attempts, even though these people might not have suicidal intentions.

“While the law does not criminalise non-suicidal self-harm in itself, investigating potential cases of attempted suicide draws more vulnerable people into criminal justice processes and places additional demands on police resources,” said the group.

In its press release, Aware cited the experience of an 18-year-old student, Z, who struggled with depression. After inflicting a severe cut on herself in the school toilet in early 2015, she was sent to the hospital.

Z recounted how two police officers told her that attempting and considering suicide was illegal. When she cried harder, fearing imprisonment, they warned her to stop crying, or she would be sent to jail.

Addressing misconceptions that police investigation and arrest would provide emergency intervention, Aware said such moves were “extremely intimidating”, and could best be left to another agency, such as a specialist support team trained in psychological first aid.

“Suicide is a matter for social support and public health, not criminal law,” said Ms Jolene Tan, Aware’s head of advocacy & research.

“Treating people as criminals worsens their distress, rather than resolving the underlying difficulties that lead to suicide attempts.”

Counsellors, however, said the law remains more of a safeguard, rather than heavily enforced in actual practice.

Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist in private practice at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said the law was used to deter those who did “impulsive” acts. “We could argue that the interview (following suicide attempt cases) itself is traumatic ... But what I’ve seen so far in my (16) years of practice, I don’t see the police taking punitive action ... ,” he added.

Mr Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, felt by having the police in charge of these cases, those who attempted suicide could be directed to get proper help.

“(Police) can’t take a risk, they have to follow protocols to make sure the person is safe, bring them to the right (place) to get help … But sometimes the client doesn’t see it as being helped, but as being arrested,” he said.

While acknowledging that the current system can be further improved, Ms Christine Wong, executive director of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), noted that “continual efforts” have been made to tweak it by various parties.

The SOS collaborates with the Singapore Police Force, which refer cases of attempted suicide to the organisation.

Citing the Appropriate Adult Scheme, which involves “specially trained volunteers” to complement police work when handling vulnerable suspects, Ms Wong said the greater attention given to them was “encouraging”. “ ... SOS believes that a collective effort to further fine-tune current processes through collaborations and provision of training can be further explored instead of (being) ruled out,” she added.

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