Mental health, patriarchy and the criminalisation of attempted suicide

Published Oct 10, 2023


By Melusi Simelane

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), for every suicide in Africa, there are approximately 20 attempts.

While some countries have slowly moved towards repealing the criminal offence of attempted suicide, recognising it as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, others have retained the offence and continue imprisoning people who attempt suicide.

The 2023 World Population Review reports put Lesotho, eSwatini, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the top 6 African countries with the highest number of reported suicides. Lesotho and eSwatini are in the top three globally.

In Africa and across the world, there is still a significant gap between male and female suicide rates. In Lesotho, the suicide rate is 72 per 100,000 persons, but breaking it down between men and women is 116 and 30, respectively. The same is true for eSwatini, where the average rate is 29 per 100,000, but the difference between men and women is 55 against 4.7.

These are essential statistics to ponder considering World Mental Health Day, celebrated on October 10. The day offers stakeholders working on mental health issues a platform to discuss their work and what more must be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.

Suicide is a global public health problem, and men are more likely to die by suicide than women in every country. The Review shows many reported suicides among men in almost all the countries where the studies were conducted. The Review notes, ‘When women show the strain of their stressful lives and are admitted to a hospital for psychiatric care, they are likely to be discharged much sooner than their male counterparts. They feel that they need to return to their jobs and families as quickly as possible, even if they are not ready.’

Several other factors contribute to the high suicide rate among men, including patriarchy and the fear of vulnerability.

Patriarchy is a system of social structures and practices that give men power and privilege over women. This system can harm men’s mental health in several ways. For example, men may feel pressure to be successful, strong, and self-sufficient. They may also be reluctant to seek help for mental health problems because they fear being seen as weak or inadequate.

The fear of vulnerability is probably one factor contributing to the high suicide rate among men, particularly in Africa. Men are often taught that showing emotions such as sadness, fear, or weakness is unacceptable. This often leads men to bottle up their feelings and avoid seeking help when struggling. According to Olanrewaju, ‘among African men, mental health challenges may arise because of underlying loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress which accumulate over time.’

This could result from internalised African traditions that see men as emotionally intelligent and deny them the opportunity to be vulnerable.

Psychological Therapy and Counselling expert Daniel J. Goodey explains this concept in the British Journal on Criminology, ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ focusing on the gendered stereotypes of the ‘fearless man and fearful woman’.

Psychiatrist Dr Natasha Bijlani says, ‘the idea that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness’ contributes to the increasingly alarming statistics of suicide amongst men. These toxic stereotypes, or patriarchal systems, harm women and men, including men who may identify or express less ‘masculinity’ than society expects.

For people who are gender non-conforming, suicide rates are even higher. A study conducted by Alex Müller showed that one in three transgender women (33%), one in six transgender men (16%) and three in five gender non-conforming people (60%) have attempted suicide in Lesotho. The same study showed that 42% of transgender participants have tried to commit suicide in Eswatini.

The impact of patriarchy and the fear of vulnerability on men’s mental health can be particularly pronounced in Africa. In many African cultures, men are expected to be strong, stoic, and self-sufficient. This can make it difficult for men to seek help for mental health problems, even in crisis.

Decriminalising attempted suicide

One crucial step that African states can take to address the high suicide rate among men and broadly address mental health is to decriminalise attempted suicide. Whilst countries like Lesotho, Ghana and Rwanda have recently decriminalised attempted suicide, it remains a crime in The Gambia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria and Lebanon.

Another essential step African states must take is to invest in inclusive and comprehensive healthcare, prioritising people’s mental health and ensuring that mental health services are available and accessible to everyone, regardless of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or other status or location.

Training healthcare workers to identify and treat mental health problems is also vital.

However, to ensure equal access to such services, states must also repeal other offences which have proved to deter access to health services, such as offences which criminalise consensual same-sex sex.

By decriminalising attempted suicide and investing in inclusive and comprehensive healthcare, African states can take essential steps to reduce the high suicide rate among men and contribute towards addressing mental health issues. It is also vital to address the root causes of suicide, such as gender norms, poverty, unemployment, and gender inequality. If we are to reduce the risk of suicide for all, we should create a just and equitable society.

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) will hold a webinar on 10 October to address the impact of the criminalisation of attempted suicide in Africa. Join the webinar, engage in the conversation and share your views on how Africans can address mental health.

*Simelane is a Civic Rights Cluster Programme Manager at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)