Vermont has the third highest suicide rate among states east of the Mississippi (http://www.wcax.com/story/16400746/vt-sees-a-troubling-trend-in-suicides?clienttype=printable). Recent statistics released by the Vermont Mental Health Performance Indicator Project on the reporting period covering September 2010 through August 2011 show a 15% rise in suicides to a record total number of 100
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Vermont’s ranking by suicide rate rose between 2007 and 2008 from 15th among all the states to 12th, placing it in a tie with Oregon. Neighboring states have much lower suicide rates. New Hampshire ranks 21st among the states, Massachusetts 48th, and Connecticut 46th(http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=05114FBE-E445-7831-F0C1494E2FADB8EA).
Something is clearly wrong here that demands attention, and it does not appear to be the economy. Governor Shumlin, in his state of the state speech yesterday, January 5, 2012, touted the state’s economy as among the best in the nation, with a current unemployment rate of only 5.3%, down from a peak of 7.3% at the height of the recession; even then low in comparison to the double digit rate in the rest of the country(http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20120105/NEWS0302/120105026/Full-text-Governor-Peter-Shumlin-s-State-State-Address). Massachusetts and Connecticut, with their much lower suicide rates, have much higher unemployment rates (http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/lauhsthl.htm). The only way we can see that the economy could have contributed to the rise in the suicide rates is that state budget cutbacks have resulted in a wait of up to six months for a counseling appointment.
The Oregon suicide rate, after declining in the 1990s, began to rise in 2000, three years after assisted suicide became legal there (http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/news/2010news/2010-0909a.pdf?ga=t). The precise causes of the rise cannot ever be known, but it is a simple fact that legalized assisted suicide in Oregon has been accompanied by a long-term rise in the suicide rate. Washington state has not had assisted suicide long enough to establish a trend, but a rash of articles in October reported a spike in suicides three years after legalization of PAS there. For example, the number of suicides at the University of Washington in the 2010-11 school year numbered only one below the total for the entire previous three years (http://mynorthwest.com/?nid=11&sid=494969). In the Tri-City area in the southeast part of the state, suicides were up 28% for the first ten months of 2011, in contrast to the 15% yearly rise in Vermont (http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2011/10/09/1672438/suicide-in-the-tri-cities-a-painful.html#storylink=mirelated#ixzz1b4Ic6Zj9).
There is much that we don’t know about the causes of suicide. What we do know is that the reasons given by Oregon citizens who received prescriptions under Oregon’s assisted suicide law (fear of losing autonomy, losing the abilities necessary to take part in activities seen as necessary for a pleasurable life, or losing dignity) resemble the losses that may cause suicides in the general population more than the reasons most people assume a terminally ill person would want to end his or her life. For example, pain or the fear of pain was not a major reason (http://www.medicinenet.com/suicide/page2.htm, http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year13.pdf).
If the state allows physicians to enable the suicides of terminally ill people with problems similar to those of non-terminally ill people, can we really expect that only terminally ill people will turn to suicide as a solution to life’s problems? We cannot. Suicide contagion is a well-established phenomenon (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00031539.htm).
Vermont, a state with a huge and growing suicide problem, should reject legalization of assisted suicide, because legalization puts all people with problems at risk. The state should concentrate on preventing suicide. One thing it could do very quickly is hire more mental health counselors, reducing the wait time for people seeking help. Vermont needs to get is priorities straight.