The easy way out
Jordan Ryan | Thursday, November 3, 2016
It is an unfortunate reality that in a number of countries, mentally ill individuals are legally allowed to pursue euthanasia to end their lives. In nations including the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Colombia and possibly soon in Canada, persons diagnosed with mental or behavioral disorders may choose to end their lives through physician-assisted suicide irrespective of whether they have any physical impairment. Doctor-assisted dying for “unbearable” suffering with no prospect of improvement is all that need be established.
Even more alarming is that last week, the Netherlands announced plans to propose legislation to expand the concept of assisted suicide to those individuals who have decided that they have “completed life” and wish to die irrespective of the existence of any demonstrable physical or mental health issues. Dutch Health Minister Edith Shippers remarked that the proposed legislation is necessary to address the needs of “older people who do not have the possibility of continuing life in a meaningful way, or struggling with the loss of independence and reduced mobility, and who have a sense of loneliness, partly because of the loss of loved ones, and who are burdened by general fatigue, deterioration and loss of personal dignity.” Under the proposed legislation, all one claiming to be “suffering unbearably” needs to do is put in writing their desire to die and obtain approval from a physician. We should be alarmed that supposed world leaders have now defined life as so meaningless and invaluable that the phrase “bored to death” has become literally true.
The expansion of euthanasia rights to the mentally ill is distressing. In countries recognizing the right, patients with mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, autism, bipolar disorder and anorexia can now “choose” to discontinue life and end their suffering in what is presumed to be a humane fashion. Yet, this process is remarkably defective in that the mentally ill in many, if not most, cases are incapable of rationally making life and death decisions. Those governments, which permit this practice, ignore the fact that those individuals may be extremely unhappy and may have horrifically low self-esteem, which distorts their judgment as to the worth of their own lives. These governments, which endorse, if not promote, euthanasia for the mentally ill or for those who believe that they have “completed life,” are hiding behind the façade of “humane treatment” while actually making decisions to eliminate from their societies those who desperately require medical and mental health care and support. Are we really prepared as a global community to embrace a kill rather than treat mentality for those suffering from mental illness?
Since allowing the mentally ill to take their own lives, the number of people who have taken advantage of the process has continued to rise. Belgium has had a similar experience where, in the past two years, physician-assisted suicides have taken the lives of 594 non-terminal patients. In 2014 and 2015 alone, the Belgium medical system has administered lethal injections upon the request of five non-terminally ill individuals with schizophrenia, five with autism, eight with bipolar disorder, 39 with depression and 29 with dementia.
We cannot stand idly by and allow our friends and family to take their own lives under these circumstances. It is well proven that very few people are capable of making a rationale decision to commit suicide. Studies have shown that approximately 93% of those committing suicide suffer from some identifiable mental condition such as depression or bipolar disorder, conditions which impair judgment and preclude rational decision-making. Dr. Barron Lerner, an expert in medical ethics from the Department of Medicine and Population Health at NYU, in commenting upon the legalization of euthanasia for the mentally ill stated that, “a high percentage of people with unsuccessful suicides regret having tried to take their lives. To the degree that this process is facilitating people making mistakes, it needs to be revisited.” Statistics bear out Dr. Lerner’s conclusions. For example, in one United States study, it was determined that less than 4% of suicide attempters actually went on to take their own lives in the five years following their initial attempts. What if those individuals had been permitted to end their lives through a government-sanctioned practice?
We cannot allow our mentally ill or aging population to simply give up on themselves. It is incumbent upon us to intervene with the mentally ill and those who have lost the ability to recognize their self-worth and encourage them to get professional psychological assistance. We must assist and support, rather than validate the distorted judgments and hopeless feelings of these individuals. It is a measure of our humanity that we not give ourselves or these tortured individuals such an easy way out.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.