Even in prison, a desperate cry for help should be heard

Desperate individuals trying to end their lives should be helped, not punished.

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Last week, a female inmate at Dubai Central Prison was fined Dh2,000 for attempting suicide. She had begun a three-year prison sentence for drug dealing in December and, obviously unable to come to terms with this, had become seriously depressed.

I wouldn't wish to query, in any way, the original prison sentence handed down to her for dealing in drugs. That is a serious menace to society and one that is, I suspect, much more widespread than the number of court cases that come to the notice of the public. Tough punitive action is essential.

The case does, however, prompt two thoughts in my mind. First, although I have no personal experience, I assume that the first few weeks and months of any prison sentence can be among the most difficult for any convicted offender.

Once the court has delivered its verdict and the prison gates slam shut, they have to come to terms with their loss of liberty, with days, weeks, months and years stretching out ahead of them. In many cases, they may have to cope with their own feelings of shame or guilt, as well as the fact that they are no longer able to depend on, or contribute to, their family on the outside. For first offenders, at least, it must be extremely hard - whether or not they fully deserve the punishment imposed on them by a court of law.

I can understand why the prisoner may have become seriously depressed. What counselling, I wonder, was available to her, to help her come to terms both with her conviction and with her prison sentence, thereby contributing to the longer term objective of rehabilitation? Prisoners, as well as people on the outside, may need help to deal with depression, even when the depression itself has arisen from their own failings or crimes. I would hope that some is available, although there would seem to have been some failures in this particular case.

Secondly, however, I have long felt that there is something seriously amiss about a legal system that imposes punishments on those who, out of desperation, try to commit suicide. I can't myself quite comprehend how such a degree of desperation can emerge, but then I have been relatively fortunate in terms of the magnitude of the personal problems that I have thus far had to face in my life.

Psychiatrists tell us that an attempted suicide is often an unspoken plea for help, and the methods chosen often allow for a sufficient amount of time to be given for help to be provided. When a friend of mine, many decades ago, felt that she was at the end of her tether and took an overdose of pills, perhaps she knew in her misery, somewhere in her subconscious, that her flatmates might wonder why she hadn't woken up as usual and check on her. They did, and she went on to live a happy life.

We hear almost every week of successful suicides, of, for example, people in such deep financial trouble that they throw themselves off the top of tall buildings. Tragic though those are, it can be difficult to prevent if people choose not to share their problems. In a caring society, though, it should be possible to develop a different approach to those whose desperation leads them to make an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. They need compassion, counselling and psychiatric help - not a court appearance.

I'm aware that attempting to take your own life is forbidden in Islam, but that is, surely, a matter that the individual must seek to reconcile within themselves, not something where the state should impose penalties. It's not just in Islam that suicide is a matter that is frowned upon. In the Catholic Church, at least in the past - I'm not up to date with the evolution of pontifical decision-making - suicide was considered to be such a sin that someone who had committed suicide was not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. That was of little relevance, perhaps, to the person concerned, but certainly painful for relatives who were already struggling to understand why their loved one had taken the decision to kill themselves.

The function of penalties under the law, in my view, is to punish those who have committed offences against society and to protect that society. If desperate individuals, for whatever reason, decide to try to end their lives, they are harming themselves, not society at large. That should not be a matter for delivering punishment, but for providing help.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture