Jordan’s recent move to criminalize those who attempt suicide is a ridiculously short-sighted policy, especially in a country where mental health-related illnesses are rampant. Proper infrastructure and funding are needed to curb this worrying trend.
With the prevalence of conflict and economic crises in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it’s no surprise that mental health issues are common, with 30% reporting depression .
With insufficient resources to provide mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services in the region, mental health disorders are largely left untreated, which explains the surge in suicides in Jordan in recent years.
The International Medical Corps (IMC), an organization specializing in health, protection and MHPSS, reported that there were 593 suicide attempts and 143 suicides in 2021 compared to 116 suicides in 2019.
“There are clear gaps in the integration of programs related to protection, domestic violence, gender-based violence and programs for people with disabilities. Beyond this, there are considerable weaknesses in the management of resources human resources due to the lack of a coordinated national strategy and database”
The IMC finds that 80% of suicide cases in Jordan are due to depression with many contributing factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment rate climbing to almost 25%.
But the recent adoption by the Jordanian Parliament of a new law criminalizing suicide attempts does not solve the problem. The new law imposes a six-month prison sentence and a $140 fine on those who attempt suicide, encouraging them to ensure their death rather than survive and be punished.
The new law surprised medical professionals and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) as it was clear that no mental health or psychosocial specialists had been consulted.
INGOs and activists are speaking out against the new law, including Raed, a Jordanian university student and advocate for mental health awareness.
Raed shared his mental health journey publicly at the recent IMC event, See us through our eyesaimed at raising awareness among young people and various decision-makers, including parliamentarians, ministry officials and directors of INGOs.
In his speech, Raed spoke about overcoming depression and anxiety through psychotherapy and medication, making it a rare moment for someone in the area to be so outspoken about their mental health issues.
Raed’s speech went further by questioning politicians’ decision to pass this new law explaining the negative implications it will have, “Policy makers and those in the upper class are not immune to unrest. of mental health. This new law sends a clear message, especially to young people, that if you try to kill yourself, make sure you get it right the first time or we’ll throw you in jail. This law could affect your sons and daughters who may suffer from mental disorders.
He added that after serving a prison sentence, people who attempt suicide will leave feeling more depressed, rejected by their community and unable to find job opportunities.
Raed finds that the new law is rooted in mental health stigma across the region, discouraging most from even discussing the topic. “Many people in Jordan associate mental health disorders with ‘character traits’ leading to a lack of diagnosis and treatment. Those who suffer from mental disorders are usually chastised for their lack of commitment to their religion.
But Raed also finds that classist attitudes within Jordanian society determine who is “worthy” of MHPSS: a ‘trend’ for the wealthy who may seek expensive care. services.
“This leads the middle class to overlook their mental health to avoid any association with lower social status.”
Economic status also determines the treatment options available to patients, with the private sector providing high-end services at unaffordable rates and the public sector marking patient records after requesting services. Because of this, Raed feared that having his record permanently marked would jeopardize his future education and employment opportunities, leading him to seek services through INGOs.
There are currently 33 INGOs in Jordan providing MHPSS and coordination through the MHPSS Task Force, including IMC, which is a member of the National Mental Health Technical Committee coordinated by the Ministry of Health.
IMC Jordan Country Director Dr. Ahmad Bawaneh shares that accessibility to mental health services in Jordan is extremely limited with the number of psychiatrists not exceeding two per hundred thousand citizens in Jordan.
“There are clear gaps in the integration of programs related to protection, domestic violence, gender-based violence and programs for people with disabilities. Beyond this, there are considerable weaknesses in the management of existing human resources due to the lack of a coordinated national strategy and database for specialist MHPSS services.
Dr. Bawaneh explains that all of these are essential in preventing the development of mental health disorders at a young age: “Mental health is like any physical illness in that it is preventative. If the country had invested in social protection, youth engagement, capacity building for teachers and social workers, and awareness campaigns, there would be less mental illness in our communities and suicides would be less prevalent. .
“IMC finds that 80% of suicide cases in Jordan are due to depression with many contributing factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment rate soaring to almost 25%”
He explains that MHPSS working group discussions are nothing new in the country since the Committee has been meeting since the influx of Iraqi refugees in 2003. IMC’s programs currently reach 8,000 beneficiaries, most of them refugees. living in camps across the country.
According to the United Nations, 760,000 officially registered refugees, mainly from Syria, reside in Jordan.
Although refugees typically face depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety after fleeing war and persecution, Dr. Bawaneh does not believe suicides occur more frequently among refugees. refugees, but are rather reported since INGOs have a better knowledge of refugees. communities.
However, INGOs providing MHPSS have limited capacity to accept cases that meet their criteria, with the majority prioritizing refugees due to funding obligations.
For this reason, government investment in MHPSS programs and institutions is essential to address mental illness among the Jordanian population. But due to this new law, INGOs will have to develop new methods to mitigate cases of MHPSS.
Dr Bawaneh describes: “Just recently a young woman attempted suicide and our staff did not know how to document her case. Our staff feared being held responsible for providing legal testimony in court.
Mental health service providers will now need to conduct their MHPSS services more cautiously, especially when reporting mental health cases.
Rather than creating harmful laws, Raed encourages policy makers to seek other solutions such as investing in institutions and therapists, establishing appropriate policies that measure the quality of services in the public and private sphere, and discussion of mental health on television networks and within educational systems to raise awareness.
In addition to building capacity within the health sector, Dr. Bawaneh encourages government officials not to view the rising suicide rate as a media issue, as suicides have received a lot of attention in recent years, creating a public image problem for the country. The new law will help achieve the government’s goal of reducing the suicide rate by 2023. Not because suicides are going down, but rather because they will go unreported because families fear the law.
This punishment of suicide attempts by the Jordanian government shows the lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to mental health disorders.
Globally, many political leaders and citizens do not view mental illness as a medical issue since it is not a physical illness like cancer or COVID.
For this reason, Raed believes it is imperative to shed light on this issue: “We need to raise awareness among our local communities, but also our government officials so that people who attempt suicide are not condemned by society, but rather recognized as people in need. Support.
Lara Bellone d’Altavilla works in the humanitarian field and has published work on various platforms covering social justice issues in the Middle East. She is the founder and content editor of GRLبنت and co-founder of Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM).
Follow her on Twitter: @LaraBellone