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Concern grows over ‘medical assistance in dying for mental illness’ law


Social determinants of suffering

People with mental illness often are without homes, have substance use disorders, have been stigmatized and discriminated against, and have poor social supports, said Dr. Wynia. “You worry that it’s all of those things that are making them want to end their lives,” he said.

The Daily Mail ran a story in December 2022 about a 65-year-old Canadian who said he’d applied for MAID solely because of fears that his disability benefits for various chronic health conditions were being cut off and that he didn’t want to live in poverty.

A 51-year-old Ontario woman with multiple chemical sensitivities was granted MAID after she said she could not find housing that could keep her safe, according to an August report by CTV News.

Tarek Rajji, MD, chief of the Adult Neurodevelopment and Geriatric Psychiatry Division at CAMH, said social determinants of health need to be considered in standards created to guide MAID for mental illness.

“We’re very mindful of the fact that the suffering, that is, the grievousness that the person is living with, in the context of mental illness, many times is due to the social determinants of their illness and the social determinants of their suffering,” Dr. Rajji said.

Many are also concerned that it will be difficult to separate out suicidality from sheer hopelessness.

The CPA has advised a group that’s working on developing guidelines for MAID in SMI and is also developing a curriculum for mental health providers, Dr. Chaimowitz said. As part of that, there will be a process to ensure that someone who is actively suicidal is not granted MAID.

“I do not believe that it’s contemplated that MAID is going to accelerate or facilitate suicidal ideation,” he said. Someone who is suicidal will be referred to treatment, said Dr. Chaimowitz.

“People with depression often feel hopeless,” and may refuse treatments that have worked in the past, countered Dr. Gaind. Some of his patients “are absolutely convinced that nothing will help,” he said.

Troublesome cases

The expert panel said in its final report that “it is not possible to provide fixed rules for how many attempts at interventions, how many types of interventions, and over how much time,” are necessary to establish “irreversibility” of mental illness.

Dr. Chaimowitz said MAID will not be offered to anyone “refusing treatment for their condition without any good reason.” They will be “unlikely to meet criteria for incurable,” as they will have needed to avail themselves of the array of treatments available, he said.

That would be similar to rules in Belgium and the Netherlands, which allow euthanasia for psychiatric conditions.

An estimated 100-300 psychiatric patients receive euthanasia each year in those countries, according to a 2021 commentary in Psychiatric Times (Jun 7;38[6]) by Mark S. Komrad, MD, a Towson, Maryland-based psychiatrist.

There are still troublesome cases.

As previously reported by this news organization, many in Belgium were distressed recently at the news that a 23-year-old woman who had survived a terrorist attack, Shanti De Corte, requested and was granted euthanasia.

As the deadline for implementation of MAID grew closer, calls for delay grew louder, especially given the lack of concrete standards for providers.

During the waning months of 2022, Dr. Gaind – who said he was suspended from CPA for “unprofessional interactions” and allegedly misrepresenting CPA’s processes and governance matters – announced the launch of a new organization, the Society of Canadian Psychiatry, in November calling for a delay in MAID of at least 1 year so that evidence-based safeguards could be implemented. The petition has been signed by more than 200 psychiatrists, along with several dozen physicians, MAID assessors, and individuals with mental illness and family members.

The Association of Chairs of Psychiatry in Canada, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, a group of indigenous leaders, and the Ontario Association for ACT and FACT, psychiatrists who provide care to individuals with severe mental illness, among other groups, joined the call for a delay.

In its December announcement, the Canadian federal ministers said a factor in seeking a delay was that standards guiding clinicians would not be delivered until at least February – too close to when applications would be opened.

Upon hearing about the federal government’s intentions, the chair of the expert panel, Mona Gupta, MD, told The Canadian Press that she did not think it was necessary to put off implementation because necessary safeguards were already in place.

Dr. Chaimowitz awaits the standards but is optimistic that for mental illness, “the process will be tightly controlled, closely monitored, and open to scrutiny,” he said.

Dr. Braswell is not convinced. The concern is that adding people with mental illness is “going to overload the capacity of the government to monitor this practice,” he said.


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