Legal Lifelines: How Pro Bono Legal Support is Paving the Way for Decriminalising Suicide Worldwide

by Hana Farhat, Senior Programme Officer, EMENA, TrustLaw.
Monday, 22 April 2024 14:14 GMT

REUTERS/Seth Herald

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This impact story is part of a series to celebrate the extraordinary pro bono projects undertaken by legal teams to support NGOs and social enterprises with the support of TrustLaw. All projects mentioned in this series are nominated for this year’s TrustLaw Awards. Find out more. 

703,000 people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. And for every one person who dies, 20 more have attempted to take their own lives. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds worldwide.  

Suicide remains illegal in at least 23 countries. The enforcement of these laws varies significantly, with punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. Criminalisation not only stigmatises the issue but also discourages individuals from seeking help. 

A taboo topic in many cultures, some states even penalise the families of those who have died by suicide, with the invalidation of wills in some countries as an example. By ‘punishing’ suicide and suicide attempts under criminal law, states do not see it as a public health issue and therefore are not responding to the challenge holistically with integrated mental health measures and suicide prevention strategies.  

Decriminalisation saves lives 

United for Global Mental Health (UnitedGMH) is a global non-profit that works to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and increase support for mental health around the world with trusted partners. They have advocated for several years to decriminalise suicide around the world, arguing that criminalising suicide doesn’t prevent people at risk of suicide: it simply stops them from reaching out and seeking help in times of acute crisis. This position is supported by the WHO, who report that decriminalising suicide is an effective way to reduce deaths. 

To address the issue and support their advocacy, UnitedGMH reached out to TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal service. TrustLaw connected UnitedGHM with an international law firm to provide the organisation with a clear and comprehensive overview of the laws that criminalise suicide in twenty countries where there is very little or no information on suicide laws (The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Brunei, Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saint Lucia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tonga and Uganda).  

The domino effect: changing the laws on suicide 

The report was published in 2021 and provided an overview of the evidence base of the current legal status of suicide across the globe, including under international law. Country-level case studies outlined the relevant legislation that criminalises suicide, its impact on children and families, any legal or legislative attempts to modify or remove laws related to suicide and recommendations on how to change the law. The report is designed as a tool for campaigners, policymakers and advocates to share experiences, as well as opportunities for reform worldwide. 

The launch of the report drew international media coverage. It was utilised by UnitedGMH to kickstart advocacy efforts with national partners in several of these countries to have the laws repealed. Working with both national and international partners, UnitedGMH successfully supported the decriminalisation of suicide in Pakistan, Ghana, and Guyana. Malaysia also decriminalised suicide whilst efforts are ongoing in St Lucia, The Bahamas, Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and others.  

Furthermore, through UnitedGMH’s work with Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the SIDIS members adopted the Bridgetown Declaration, which for the first time, included commitment to  to decriminalise suicide. More could soon follow, explains Muhammad Ali Hasnain, a barrister from UnitedGMH, “There seems to be a domino effect taking place. As one country decriminalises suicide, others start to follow suit. 

The push for legislative reform continues  

Due to the success of the report and the ongoing work to raise awareness, GMH approached TrustLaw again to add twenty five countries to the research and update the status of the previous jurisdictions. Faith Nassozi, a Communications Advisor from United for Global Mental Health said: “Getting up-to-date information on these countries in the form of country profiles will allow us to work with national partners in these countries to decriminalise suicide and push for suicide prevention strategies rather than incarceration as the primary response. It will also allow us to strategically evaluate our opportunities to raise this issue at both national and global levels”. 


The report is currently being researched and UnitedGMH hopes to launch it soon.   


United for Global Mental Health is not a provider of mental health support services or guidance. If you feel you need mental health support, please visit here for over 1,600 free and confidential support resources available over the phone, text or web chat. 

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