Under Kenyan law, attempted suicide is a crime. Experts from both government and nongovernmental organizations say the law should be either changed or repealed.
KIKUYU, KENYA — David Njuguna says he has tried to take his own life on three different occasions. He has lived with depression for 12 years and says his most recent suicide attempt was on Feb. 1, 2016.
“After a month of suicidal thinking, I dressed very smartly and left the house, knowing I would not return,” Njuguna says.
Now, Njuguna is a volunteer with Befrienders Kenya, an organization that offers support to survivors and those who live with suicidal thoughts. He says he tried to hang himself from a tree in his neighborhood in Kikuyu, on the outskirts of Nairobi, but was rescued by members of his community before he could do so.
Although they prevented his death, instead of offering support, his friends advised his wife to leave him and to contact the police, Njuguna says.
He is grateful that she did neither.
“Supposing that my wife went to the police at any one of the times I tried to kill myself?” he says. “I would have been in jail.”
Under Kenyan law, attempted suicide is a crime. Government and civil society groups plan to meet this month to discuss a roadmap to changing or repealing the law. They say that persons who have attempted suicide need medical help, not punishment.
Section 226 of the Penal Code defines attempted suicide as a misdemeanor. Categorized under the section Offences Connected With Murder and Suicide, a misdemeanor is punishable by a jail term of up to two years, or a fine, or both, according to Section 36 of the Penal Code.
A 2014 report by the World Health Organization estimates that the suicide rate for males in Kenya is 24.4 for every 100,000, and the rate for females is 8.4.
Lydia Matata, GPJ Kenya
Kenya’s National Police Services’ annual crime report recorded 320 cases of suicide in 2015. Merab Liyai Mulindi, a volunteer counselor at Befrienders Kenya, says silence surrounding the issue makes it difficult to determine the real numbers of people who have attempted or have died by suicide in Kenya.
“Very few people come out to say that their loved ones died because of suicide, for fear of exclusion, as it is a taboo and highly stigmatized subject,” Mulindi says. “It is also rare for someone to publicly admit that they have attempted suicide. We can only rely on records from hospitals and the police, but not all those who attempt suicide end up there.”
Mulindi adds that the fear of arrest makes it difficult for people to open up even when they have approached organizations such as Befrienders Kenya for counseling.
Njuguna says that because his last attempt at suicide became public knowledge in his community, he was treated like a ghost for some time.
“Initially, my family did not want to associate with me, and my neighbors would only greet me from afar, and there was a feeling of rejection even from the state, since it was a crime. People think you are an idiot for attempting such a thing,” he says.
Dr. Simon Njuguna, acting head of the Mental Health Care Unit at the Ministry of Health, says that even though the law calls for prosecuting those who attempt suicide, the majority end up in a hospital for treatment instead.
“But this is a gentleman’s agreement between the officer and the relatives, and the police are actually not following the law when they take someone to hospital for psychiatric care instead of jail,” the doctor says.
The law as it stands now is a hindrance to people living with suicidal thoughts, because the knowledge that it is a criminal offense makes them go into hiding rather than seeking help, he says.
Michael Njenga, chief executive officer of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry-Kenya, says the law increases the level of stigma, discrimination and isolation for survivors of suicide attempts and their families. By making it a criminal offense, Njenga says, the law makes it clear to the public that someone who attempts suicide is a criminal.
“What takes preeminence is the punishment rather than the care and support for the person. When someone attempts suicide, you will probably be arrested, then taken to a police station, or even if you are taken to hospital, you are handcuffed next to the hospital bed, which adds on to the trauma for a person who needs medical intervention,” he says.
Njenga adds that this also reinforces the belief that mental illness is a result of witchcraft or a curse on a family.
Philip Gichana, a programs manager at the Kenyan NGO International Institute for Legislative Affairs, says the law originated from colonial times and is meant as a deterrent for people who might be thinking of killing themselves.
“The idea is that if someone sees another person arrested and tried for attempting to commit suicide, this will dissuade them from also attempting to do the same,” he says. “However, if someone is in extreme emotional state or pain, and you tell them they shouldn’t commit suicide because another person went to jail for doing the same, it won’t work, because that person has already made up their mind.”
He adds that being charged with the crime of attempted suicide can have impact on their lives negatively, even if they are later pardoned.
“Once someone has been fingerprinted and put into the system for such a crime, it can make it difficult to access certain government documents like the Certificate of Good Conduct, which requires one not to have a criminal record for it to be issued by the police,” Gichana says. “The certificate is required by employers in government and sometimes in the private sector. This will make it difficult for the person to get jobs in certain institutions.”
Dr. Njuguna says the first step in repealing the law was taken on Sept. 10, 2016 — World Suicide Prevention Day — when representatives of the Ministry of Health appeared at Mathari Mental Hospital in Nairobi to raise awareness about the negative consequences of the law and how it affects society, the media and the State Law Office, the department that upholds the nation’s rules.
Njuguna suggests a change to the law that would allow police to help families take relatives who attempt suicide to the hospital without fear of arrest, so they can facilitate rather than hinder access to treatment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: David Njuguna, the pastor, and Simon Njuguna, the physician, are not related.