By Nancy Valko
My first husband and the father of my children was a caring man and dedicated psychiatrist who himself eventually became disabled by mental illness. Early in our marriage, I helped him write his medical journal articles and we planned to eventually include me in his psychiatric practice to work with the families of his patients. As a nurse, I always believed that families were ideally the best support system for patients and our goal was to improve the care and outcomes of people with mental illness.
Tragically, my husband’s mental illness worsened despite intensive treatment. He ultimately abandoned our family and lived the next 26 years in and out of hospitals and assisted living places before he died of natural causes in 2014.
Thus I have a unique perspective on the legal, medical and personal aspects of mental illness.
At one point, a family member sympathetically suggested that it might be better for everyone if he committed suicide. I was horrified. You don’t give up on sick people and I told this person that I would do anything in my power to stop him if he tried to kill himself. Suicide would be the ultimate tragedy.
Canada and Its New Assisted Suicide Law
In February 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Carter v. Canada case to legalize physician-assisted suicide for competent, consenting adults whose suffering is due to a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition and gave Parliament a year to develop a regulatory regime along these “parameters.”
The Parliamentary Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted “Dying” suggested that the “grievous and irremediable” criterion includes nonterminal medical conditions, including psychiatric disorders.
The federal government’s Bill C-14, on the other hand, defined “grievous and irremediable” as an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capabilities” in a person for whom “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.” The Senate ultimately passed the bill but the controversy about assisted suicide for psychiatric patients is still raging.
In a June 21, 2016, commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal “Should assisted dying for psychiatric disorders be legalized in Canada?”, authors Scott Y.H. Kim MD PhD and Trudo Lemmens LLM DCL warn against this.
As they note:
In Belgium and the Netherlands, medical assistance in dying has been provided to people with chronic schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, severe eating disorders, autism, personality disorders and even prolonged grief.
The authors conclude that:
Because of the necessarily broad criteria used to regulate assisted dying (in Canada), legalizing the practice for psychiatric conditions will likely place already vulnerable patients at risk of premature death.
However, others like Belgium psychiatrist Joris Vandenberghe, MD, PhD, disagree:
“I think the current approach taken by the Canadian government is a bit too strict because it doesn’t fully recognize the enormous impact that psychiatric disorders can have on patients,” Dr Vandenberghe told Medscape Medical News. (Emphasis added)
However, even Dr. Vandenberghe recognizes the problems while still calling for more “safeguards”:
“I am generally not opposed to our euthanasia legislation and agree that patients suffering from psychiatric conditions should not be excluded from our legislation. However, extra precautions are urgently needed.
“I’m not happy with the way things work here [in Belgium]. Sometimes euthanasia is used with insufficient reluctance on the part of the healthcare professionals involved. We’re missing opportunities for treatment, and we need more safeguards,” said Dr. Vandenberghe.
So for me, the answer lies in a thorough evaluation of a patient prior to euthanasia. There really is no time pressure in psychiatric disorders, and if you have a multidisciplinary committee involved in the evaluation, you can take care of lot of the concerns we now have about euthanasia in the setting of psychiatric illness.”
The reality is that very few psychological or psychiatric referrals are even now made for anyone considering assisted suicide either in the U.S. or in Europe. The answer is not more “safeguards” for assisted suicide practitioners to disregard while enjoying virtual legal immunity but rather an emphatic “No!” from the public as well the legal and medical systems. We also need an unbiased media to publicly expose the real facts about legalized medical killing.
I have seen both the legal and medical systems often fail people with mental illness like my ex-husband who desperately need treatment and safety.
On the medical side, I begged for direction from my ex-husband’s doctors about what I could do to help him but I was told that there was nothing I could do or not do since the doctors were seeing him regularly. I was not allowed to even know his diagnosis without his permission.
On the legal side, I had problems getting supervised visitation even after a hostage situation. Due to almost constant harassment, I had multiple orders of protection violated without adequate legal response. And despite being on mental illness disability, my ex-husband was allowed to file and lose several frivolous lawsuits-until he ran out of money.
It was a heartbreaking situation.
However, I always hoped that my ex-husband would improve so that he could at least have a better relationship with his children. Even though that did not happen, I am grateful that he did not die by suicide, assisted or otherwise.
Unfortunately, my family’s experience is not unique among families with a member who is mentally ill.
If our medical and legal systems are already often failing people with mental illness and their families, how can we allow them the power to “assist” our loved ones’ suicide?
That would be the ultimate betrayal of an already stigmatized and vulnerable group of people.
Editor’s note. This appeared on Nancy’s blog.