Apparently, according to Ugandan law, anybody who attempts to take their own life can end up in jail. But how practical is this? Joseph Ssemutooke picks the brains of psychologists, lawyers and the public “Imprisonment
Innocent Muhangi was arrested at Mulago Hospital in mid-June after he attempted to commit suicide. He aimed to jump off the third floor of the hospital’s main complex.
Muhangi confessed that he wanted to commit suicide because he had fulfilled every requirement to complete his course at Kampala Polytechnic Institute in Mengo, but Uganda National Examinations Board had not released his exams on the grounds that he had not handed in his coursework.
And then a bizzare twist to Muhangi’s case: After he had been held in custody for a month following his suicide attempt, Muhangi was last month produced in the dock at the Law Development Centre (LDC) Court and sentenced to six months in jail for attempting to take his own life.
In handing Muhangi the six-month jail sentence, Magistrate Rebecca Nasambu, granted the request of State prosecutor Betty Agalo, who had asked that Muhangi be imprisoned not only to “keep him in a safe place where he could not commit suicide,” but also to have him “change his attitude about taking his life.”
As would be expected, Muhangi’s imprisonment raised eyebrows and sparked debate. People questioned how proper and productive it was to incarcerate someone for attempting to take his life.
JAIL IS NO SOLUTION
Remmy Okello, a student of social sciences at Makerere University, bitterly questions the logic of jailing a frustrated person who tries to take their life. He says imprisonment is a misguided remedy for a person suffering from suicidal tendencies.
Ivan Mukulye, a psychiatrist at Butabika Psychiatric Hospital, says mental illness is more of a disease to be cured through treatment than locking away the patient without offering them the necessary treatment.
Jovia Namutebi, an accountant, believes it was extremely wrong to arrest Muhangi. She argues that imprisonment will only intensify his frustrations and, maybe, get him to attempt suicide again.
THE UGANDAN LAW CRIMINALISES SUICIDE
However, defending the decision to imprison Muhangi, Ahmed Mugabi, a Law student at LDC, says in the Ugandan penal code, a person who attempts suicide is to be incarcerated. In Chapter 20, under offences connected with murder and suicide, “any person who attempts to kill himself or herself commits a misdemeanour.”
Mugabi explains that a misdemeanour is “the smaller of the two possible criminal offences a person can be convicted of, and with the misdemeanor, a culprit, if convicted, suffers a lighter punishment than one convicted of a felony or capital offence.”
Joan Babirye, a Kampala advocate, says she too would have asked the magistrate to imprison Muhangi over his attempted suicide. She argues that when a person who attempts suicide is imprisoned, “they are not only kept in proper custody where they will not be able to attempt suicide in the following months, but they also get to have enough time to change their minds, through their own reflection and through counselling offered to them while in prison.”
PSYCHIATRISTS SPEAK OUT
However, Mukulye says it is important to realise that far from changing a person’s mind about killing themselves, imprisoning them is more likely to further motivate the person to try to take their life again — either in prison or once they are released.
“Eighty percent of people who successfully commit suicide are people who have tried to take their life at least once before,” says Mukulye. “So the solution to discourage one from further suicide attempts cannot be imprisonment, but proper handling of their suicidal thoughts. It is important to realise that suicidal tendencies are a form of mental illness, with 90% of those who die by suicide having had a diagnosable mental illness at the time of death. They will be victims of one or more of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, or eating disorders. Imprisoning them can only aggravate the mental illness. ”
Dr. Alex Kwesiga, a counsellor and psychologist says: “If a person has an illness which causes them to have thoughts of suicide, even after imprisonment that illness can come back from time-to-time, and with it, the suicidal ideas come back even stronger than before.
“If it is social or economic or other such problems causing them to have suicidal tendencies, again those problems will not go away with imprisonment.” Talking of the right way to handle suicides, Dr. Kwesiga adds that the first six months after hospitalisation are especially critical to the suicide attempt survivor, and the person remains at an elevated risk for the entire first year.
“During this time, you have to treat them with care, sympathy, acceptance and understanding. They will get none of that in prison. They will get these necessary traits around them more easily in the company of their loved ones and friends, or church.
“Muhangi will come out of prison still without his UNEB examination results, and if he was counting on the certificate to get a job, still he will not have them. “It would have been better to help him solve his socioeconomic problems other than merely imprisoning him,” Kwesiga concludes.