Numerous news reports and editorials have flooded media outlets over the past two weeks following the tragic deaths by suicide of two celebrities, concurrently with the release of a CDC study confirming a significant rise in suicide nationwide over the past 20 years. There has been speculation about the role played by depression and other mental illness in these deaths, and discussion of social isolation and other psycho-social factors contributing to the rise in the number of suicides overall. There also has been much hand-wringing in the media over their own culpability in the phenomenon of “suicide contagion,” which refers to the spike in suicides that frequently happens after a high-profile suicide. News stories have ended with careful warnings about dealing with depression, paired with referrals to suicide hotlines.
Clearly, as a culture, we view suicide as the tragedy that it is, and we instinctively want to prevent it.
And yet, tucked into one issue of the New York Times last week, alongside multiple pieces covering these tragic deaths, was a starkly contrasting opinion piece by Diane Rehm championing the cause of assisted suicide.
Are we the only ones who have noticed the elephant in the room? When suicide is portrayed as a sort of “noble good” for some, as Rehm does in her editorial, is it any surprise that some depressed people might consider it a reasonable solution to their own suffering?
If we are going to examine all the potential causes behind individual suicides, and an overall rise in the suicide rate, we must consider the role of legal assisted suicide in the contagion phenomenon. Ironically, and perhaps significantly, Oregon first legalized assisted suicide in 1998, exactly one year before the suicide rate nationwide began to rise, according to the CDC. This pattern has been repeated in other states where assisted suicide is legal, and we now know that the trend has spread across the United States as a whole.
As we have written in the past, to promote suicide prevention treatment for some groups while at the same time supporting suicide for one significant and vulnerable population—those who have terminal illnesses—is discrimination of the worst kind. Here in Vermont and in the other States where assisted suicide is legal, the attitude toward the terminally ill has already shifted to one of “helping” them kill themselves, rather than evaluating whether suicide prevention efforts might help them live out their lives in comfort and a state of positive mental health.
Studies reveal that among the elderly, a key reason for suicide is chronic pain. Because the proponents of assisted suicide have worked hard to use the fear of pain as a justification for assisted suicide, it is not hard to imagine that any elderly person with a chronic condition may receive a referral for “aid in dying” rather than suicide prevention treatment, along with better pain management, that might be of greater ultimate help to that person.
Economic worries and concerns about being able to adequately care for loved ones is a key factor among some populations at risk for suicide. It is easy to imagine that a person with a terminal illness, or an elderly person in frail health, might also worry about the depletion of financial resources related to his care; does this person merit suicide prevention treatment, or a prescription to kill himself? Who decides?
The distinction between people whose situations call for “suicide prevention intervention” and those whose expressed desire to die leads to a prescription to die, will become increasingly arbitrary, and the decision to treat may well come down to the subjective judgment of people other than the person who is sick.
Suicide prevention is a laudable cause which we should all support. But beyond that, we need to recognize that legal assisted suicide is, in fact, a contributing factor to suicide and that the price we are paying so that a handful of people with terminal diagnoses can get a doctor’s help to kill themselves is far too high.