Criminalising people who attempt suicide is unjust and dangerous

The conversation around mental health has moved on, we’re told: we’re better at talking, better at listening. More recent wins for mentally ill people have been bolstered by historical changes in law, the narrative goes – the Suicide Act of 1961 one of the more obvious examples of positive legislative change. The reality is not as clear cut. Material gains for the community are few and far between – and despite the fact it’s been nearly 60 years since decriminalisation, mentally ill people are still being punished for attempts to take their own lives.

Last month, Greater Manchester police was forced to defend its decision to prosecute two mentally ill women for “causing traffic jams” during attempts to kill themselves. One of the women explained that her mother, grandmother and uncle had all died in the past year; she was sentenced to a 12-month community order and ordered to pay £200 in costs regardless. The other, charged with illegally walking on a motorway, had £105 taken from her benefits payment and was sent back to the psychiatric ward she had fled from.

It goes on. Last year, another woman was charged with breach of the peace after threatening to jump off a motorway bridge; kept in a cell overnight, she was handcuffed to a G4S officer before being taken to court, where a judge spoke of how she had “inconvenienced” the public. The woman involved later spoke to the press about how the incident had made her feel. “I thought maybe it would have been best if I’d just ended my life because I felt sorry for what I’d done,” she said. “It made me feel worthless.” And in 2009, a man was threatened with a fine of £24,000 after walking down a railway line, showing that compensating Docklands Light Railway is apparently more important than ensuring someone’s safety and dignity.

There is a basic and obvious injustice here: there is an instant, direct impact on people when you punish them for attempting suicide. It puts them even more at risk, adding to an often deeply internalised narrative that those who attempt suicide are worthless inconveniences, and sending that message to other suicidal people at the same time. That’s without going into more immediate risk factors. One of the women involved said she was “left alone for hours” – an incredible ordeal for someone suicidal. Adding the strain of a court case, fines and criminal record to the lives of people who are already experiencing horrendous distress is also horrifying and inhumane; the last thing someone needs when they are at their lowest ebb. Any first response, whether that comes from police or mental health professionals, should be sensitive, respectful and empathetic. Criminalisation is none of these things.

But there’s a more insidious effect, too. Many of us have heard the insensitive grumblings of someone annoyed their train has been delayed because of a suicide attempt – explicit expressions of the misplaced but still prevalent belief that those who want to take their own lives are selfish, thoughtless and cruel. To fine someone or threaten them with jail time because of a suicide attempt is simply to reinforce this; it does absolutely nothing to challenge it. And it certainly does nothing to support those who need help.

Media organisations and journalists have been urged by charities to change the language around suicide; we’re not supposed to say someone has “committed” suicide any more, an attempt to reframe our beliefs about what suicide means. It’s a positive step. But as with so many elements of the modern mental health discourse, it simply doesn’t go far enough. While mentally ill people are still being punished and prosecuted for attempting to take their own lives, changing the way we talk about suicide isn’t enough: we desperately need to change the way we handle it, too.