This article was also published at On Line Opinion and is re-posted here with permission.
If the Victorian Parliament passes the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, it will be sending mixed messages on suicide: it’s not OK for most but it is for some. And that simply isn’t right.
Suicide is always a tragedy. As a society we actively try and prevent it. Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Suicide Prevention Australia, just to name a few organisations, help those who want to end their own lives. Indeed, the Victorian Government has committed millions of dollars to tackle suicide in our community.
Premier Daniel Andrews has said “For every suicide, there are many more people deeply affected – family, friends, carers, colleagues and communities. This is something we urgently need to change.”
The Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley, stated that “We know that every suicide has a devastating impact on our community – this is something we are working quickly to change.”
But here’s where the message gets confused. The Victorian Parliament is debating a bill which will legalise assisted suicide. If we accept this Bill as reflective of our values as a society we will be sending mixed messages about suicide.
Imagine these two scenarios. The first scenario could become more common in Victoria quite soon. A lady, aged 55, is suffering from incurable cancer and is given less than 12 months to live. She is also suffering from depression in response to the cancer diagnosis.
She asks her doctor for a prescription to attain a lethal cocktail of drugs, in part because of her depression. The doctor is not required to check for a possible mental illness or mood disorder diagnosis. So they don’t.
However, the doctor is required to get a second opinion about the lady’s suitability for voluntary suicide, and does so. He fills in requisite forms, gives the lady a prescription, and she self-administers the drugs and dies.
The second scenario is, sadly, not uncommon now. A young man, aged 26, is found dead in his parent’s garage after committing suicide. The reason why he did this is unclear, although it becomes clear that he had symptoms of depression and no-one intervened.
Any psychologist will tell you that most people who decide to attempt suicide do so whilst suffering from depression or related mental illnesses. And they will also tell you that these people should have hope and, therefore, they should seek help. As a society, that’s what we encourage people to do.
We would never accept the suicide of a young person due to depression as a normal and healthy response to suffering. Hence why millions of dollars are being poured into combatting it.
So it is disturbing that the State Parliament is about to consider a bill which doesn’t adequately protect against this happening.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill will allow for individuals who are suffering from a terminal illness and are not expected to live longer than 12 months to request to be killed or to kill themselves.
Sure, the circumstances in which that would be possible are limited. But here’s the rub. Any psychologist could also tell you that people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness often go through feelings of depression, grief and suicidal tendencies. It’s a normal experience for someone in that situation.
But this new bill which legalises assisted suicide doesn’t take this into account. It misses the possibility that a decision by a terminally ill person to end their lives might be driven more by depression than by the suffering caused by the terminal illness.
In fact, the bill doesn’t even require doctors to check on the consequent mental health of the patient. It doesn’t require doctors to check for an undiagnosed mental health issue; only a pre-diagnosed one.
Add to this that the stipulated 10-day waiting period between initiating a request and receiving the prescription for lethal drugs is nowhere near long enough to allow for a likely change in mental health. People can, and do, change from their initial pessimistic outlook on their life with an illness. People are able to have hope again.
The fact is that this bill fails to protect people with a terminal illness at a time when they are at their most psychologically vulnerable. And yet we’re deeply, and rightly, concerned when a person who has good physical health decides to commit suicide, and we try and do everything we can to stop it.
Why this double standard? Why the mixed messages? Surely life is valuable regardless of whether someone is terminally ill or not. That is the whole reason why we don’t want people to commit suicide. But if we start to make exceptions to this we imply that some lives are less valuable than others.
We shouldn’t send mixed messages about suicide. The Bill before the Parliament does just that. Instead, we should just send one clear one—don’t do it. Your life matters, no matter how bad you think it is.