Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law that made doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients illegal, something that has already been legal in countries like the Netherlands since 2000. In recent years, European countries including the Netherlands have also made doctor-assisted suicide available for people suffering from mental illnesses as well as physical ones.

Mental illness affects 20 per cent of Canadians, and 25 per cent of deaths for people aged 15-24 are a result of suicide, according the to Canadian Mental Health Association. Should Canada consider extending doctor-assisted suicide to those suffering from mental illness as well?

Photo: CC detsang

No: Mental illness clouds a person’s judgement

Those suffering from mental illness are not in a position to make the decision to apply for doctor-assisted suicide because their brain is not in a healthy frame of mind and their illness is clouding their judgement.

Assisted suicide is a respectful way to allow those with life-threatening illnesses to peacefully end their suffering. There’s a difference between assisted suicide in the cases of a senior fighting cancer and a young adult battling depression, because a person suffering from mental illness can still see their condition improve.

Mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder cause suicidal thoughts and tendencies, which can drastically worsen if not treated. These illnesses are deemed to be psychiatric disorders, which means that the brain is not completely healthy.

Someone dealing with depression is not in the mental state to fully consent to assisted suicide, because their illness may be drastically altering their state of mind.

Those dealing with mental illness severe enough to cause suicidal thoughts most likely believe that they have reached the peak of their suffering, and are ready to die. Those feelings should not be ignored, however, proper treatment could help to change their view drastically.

In addition doctors haven’t reached a consensus on whether mental illnesses qualify as terminal diseases. The U.S.-based National Alliance for Mental Illness, claims “the early treatment success rates for mental illness are  60-80 per cent.”

Having any role in the death of someone mentally ill is taking advantage of their illness and allowing their current status to control what might be a different outcome if they had the treatment they needed. The reality is that we don’t understand how certain parts of our brain and consciousness work let alone have a definitive grasp on whether mental illness is terminal or not.

Yes: Not offering doctor-assisted suicide to people with mental illness is discrimination

Imagine two patients; one suffering from an incurable illness that over the course of a year slowly robs him or her of their muscular ability until they die, and another, who suffers from a mental illness that leaves him incapable of participating in his day-to-day life even while receiving treatment.

Should only the one with the physical illness be eligible for physician-assisted suicide?

Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that, “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.”

Refusing doctor-assisted suicide to someone because they have a mental illness is discrimination, pure and simple, This speaks to a larger societal issue with mental illness in that we often refuse to see it as being a serious issue because there are few visible signs. It is much easier to dismiss the symptoms of depression than those of a broken bone.

Those who still may not be convinced should also consider Section 7 of the Charter: “the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” Doctor-assisted suicide allows all people to have control over their own lives rather than being denied access to it by a government.

By trapping individuals in a state of suffering, like a terminal illness, the government also acts against the right to security of the person as well as the right to “not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” as it says in Section 12 of the Charter.

Pushing people away from the medical community pushes them away from treatment options for their condition.  A well-regulated assisted suicide procedure for individuals with mental illnesses could actually encourage wider access to treatments, because it will be exposing sufferers to various resources.

Once patients enter the healthcare system and ask for doctor-assisted suicide they are opening themselves up to the other treatment options that are available, and taking advantage of the resources available for them such as medication or therapy. Untreatable mental illnesses cause as much suffering and loss of dignity as untreatable physical diseases—to suggest otherwise is to trivialize mental illness.

Assisted suicide is now a legal option to those requiring it, and one that must be extended to people struggling with all forms of terminal illness.