A BMJ article titled “Some groups of terminally ill patients are twice as likely to die by suicide, data show” draws the wrong conclusion from the data surrounding increased patient suicide. The study referenced in the article, done by the Office for National Statistics, records that patients with some serious conditions are twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves compared to control groups with similar socio-demographic characteristics.
The article asserts from this study that, because patients with a terminal illness are already suicidal, providing assisted suicide gives these people a sanitized method that is “peaceful” and allows their families to participate. Another claim made in the article, a quote from Majorie Wallace, who leads a mental health charity, is that the motivation to provide assisted suicide to these affected patients is to shorten their deaths, not to shorten their lives “and therefore traditional suicide prevention measures are not an appropriate response.”
The fatal flaws with these assessments are two-fold. The first point completely ignores the problem obviously present in this vulnerable population and skips to a solution that undermines suicide prevention care and simultaneously disregards patients’ real needs. The second point blatantly supports creating discrimination in suicide prevention services and care. Both are irresponsible responses to an increased suicide rating in vulnerable populations.
Multiple studies show that patients who receive a serious diagnosis struggle with mental distress including depressive episodes. Psychiatric disabilities can make people vulnerable to suicidal ideation as can the medications that treat these mental conditions. It follows then that a group of people more likely to experience suicidal tendencies have more access to suicide prevention resources and psychological care, not less.
Additionally, to conclude that society ought to help terminally ill people “peacefully” kill themselves because they are ‘already dying’ is problematic. The underlying implication is the discriminatory, ableist message to people with physical and psychological disabilities that society thinks they are better off dead. This two-tiered approach to vulnerable populations creates discrimination in suicide prevention services. For example, another vulnerable group in the United States, veterans, have a higher suicide rating than the general population. But unlike terminal patients, their care and suicide prevention is prioritized and thankfully, lots of resources go to preventing their vulnerable deaths. Sick patients should receive the same suicide prevention care as everyone else instead of being devalued and given encouragement.
The study reaffirms the need for more accessible, quality psychological care. Blatantly ignoring the vulnerable condition patients are frequently in and the psychiatric disabilities that can accompany a life-altering prognosis is irresponsible and misses the point.
Read more: Misconceptions about Opposition to Assisted Suicide Expansion