Jordan’s recent decision to criminalize attempted suicide is a ridiculously short-sighted policy, especially in a country where mental health-related illnesses are rampant. Adequate infrastructure and funding are needed to curb this worrying trend.
Not surprisingly, given the prevalence of conflict and economic crisis in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, mental health problems are widespread, with 30% reporting suffering from depression.
With insufficient resources to provide mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services in the region, mental disorders go largely untreated, which explains the rise 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 protection, domestic violence, gender-based violence and disability programs. In addition, there are significant weaknesses in the management of existing human resources due to the lack of a coordinated national strategy and database”
The IMC notes that 80% of suicides in Jordan are due to depression with multiple factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment rate that has risen to almost 25%.
But the recent passage of a new law by the Jordanian parliament criminalizing attempted suicide does not solve the problem. The new law imposes a six-month prison sentence and a $140 fine on attempted suicides, motivating them to ensure their death rather than survive and face punishment.
The new law came as a surprise to medical professionals and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), as it was clear that no mental health or psychosocial specialists had been consulted.
INGOs and advocates are opposed to this new law, including Raed, a Jordanian university student and mental health awareness advocate.
Raed shared publicly about his mental health journey at IMCs recent event. See us through our eyesaimed at raising awareness among young people and various decision-makers, including members of parliament, 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 region to be so vocal about their mental health struggles.
Raed’s speech went further by challenging the politicians’ decision to pass this new law by explaining the negative impact it will have: “Policy makers and members of the upper class are not immune to mental health disorders. 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 will throw you in jail. This law could affect your sons and daughters who may have mental disorders.”
He went on to say that after serving a prison sentence, suicide attempts will become depressed, shunned by their community and unable to find employment opportunities.
Raed thinks the new law is rooted in the stigma attached to mental health across the region, discouraging most from even discussing the issue. “Many people in Jordan associate mental disorders with “character traits” that lead to a lack of diagnosis and treatment. People suffering from mental disorders are usually punished for lack of commitment to their religion.”
But Raed also finds that classicist attitudes within Jordanian society determine who is ‘worthy’ of MHPSS: ‘In Jordan, mental health is stigmatized as something for lower socioeconomic groups, while it is a ‘trend’ for the wealthy who can search dearly Services.
“This causes the middle class to neglect their mental health to avoid association with lower social status.”
Economic status also determines what treatment options are available to patients, with the private sector providing quality services at prohibitive prices and the public sector marking patient records after services are consumed. Because of this, Raed feared that permanently marking his records would jeopardize his future educational and employment opportunities, prompting him to seek the services of INGOs.
There are currently 33 INGOs in Jordan providing MHPSS and coordinating through the MHPSS Working Group, including IMC which is a member of the National Committee on Mental Health coordinated by the Ministry of Health.
The Jordanian country director of IMC, Dr. Ahmad Bawaneh, reports that access to psychiatric services in Jordan is extremely limited as the number of psychiatrists does not exceed two in every hundred thousand inhabitants of Jordan.
“There are clear gaps in the integration of protection, domestic violence, gender-based violence and disability programs. In addition, there are significant weaknesses in managing existing human resources due to the lack of a coordinated national strategy and database for specialized MHPSS services.”
dr Bawaneh explains that all of these elements are essential to prevent the development of mental health disorders at a young age: “Mental health, like any physical illness, is preventive in that sense. If the country had invested in social protection, youth engagement, capacity building of teachers and social workers, and awareness campaigns, there would be fewer mental illnesses in our communities and suicides would be less common.”
“The IMC finds that 80% of suicides in Jordan are due to depression with multiple factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment rate that has risen to nearly 25%.”
He explains that MHPSS working group discussions are nothing new to the country, as the committee has been meeting since the influx of Iraqi refugees in 2003. IMC’s programs currently reach 8,000 beneficiaries, most of whom are refugees living in camps across the country.
According to the United Nations, 760,000 officially registered refugees live in Jordan, mostly from Syria.
Although refugees often face depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety after fleeing war and persecution, Dr. Bawaneh doesn’t say that suicides are more common among refugees, but rather that they are reported because INGOs have better insight into refugee communities.
However, INGOs offering MHPSS have limited capacity, forcing them to accept cases that meet their criteria, with a majority prioritizing refugees based on funding commitments.
For this reason, government investment in MHPSS programs and institutions is crucial to address mental illness in the Jordanian population. However, because of this new law, INGOs must develop new methods to mitigate MHPSS casework.
dr Bawaneh describes: “Recently, a young woman attempted suicide and our staff were unsure how to document her case. Our staff feared they would be held responsible for making a legal statement in court.”
Mental health providers must now conduct their MHPSS services more cautiously, particularly when reporting mental health cases.
Instead of creating disadvantageous laws, Raed encourages decision-makers to look for other solutions, such as B. Investments in institutions and therapists, the introduction of appropriate guidelines to measure quality services in the public and private sectors, and the discussion of mental health on television networks and within educational systems Awareness.
In addition to building capacity in the healthcare sector, Dr. Bawaneh government officials not to consider the rising suicide rate as a media issue as suicides have attracted a lot of attention in recent years and created a public image problem for the country: “In this regard, the The new law will achieve the government’s goal of to reduce the suicide rate in 2023. Not because suicides are declining, but because they go unreported because families are afraid of the law.”
This punishment of suicide attempts by the Jordanian government shows the lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to mental disorders.
Globally, many political leaders and citizens do not consider mental illness a medical issue as 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 in our local communities, but also among our government officials, so that suicide attempters are not condemned by society, but are recognized as those in need of support.”
Lara Bellone d’Altavilla works in the humanitarian field and has published work on social justice issues in the Middle East on various platforms. She is the founder and author of GRLبنت and co-founder of Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM).
Follow her on Twitter: @Lara Bellone