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Physician-assisted suicide for mental illness – right or wrong?


One of the most controversial issues today is whether a physician should be permitted, or even obligated, to assist patients with a terminal or incurable illness to end their life – a process known as medical assistance in dying (MAID) or physician-assisted suicide (PAS.)

Until recently, this contentious issue applied only to patients with physical illnesses who want to end their suffering and who seek out a physician willing to assist with that objective. In the United States and other countries, this is the patient population who may be able to avail themselves of this option.

However, newly proposed legislation in Canada – which has the largest number of physician-assisted deaths worldwide – would expand the indication for MAID to include serious mental illness. Originally set to be passed in March 2023, the law has been deferred for final decision until March 2024.

A recent commentary by psychiatrist Dinah Miller, MD, explored the ethics of this proposed legislation for mental health professionals. “To offer the option of death facilitated by the very person who is trying to get [patients with serious mental illness] better seems so counter to everything I have learned and contradicts our role as psychiatrists who work so hard to prevent suicide,” Dr. Miller wrote. “As psychiatrists, do we offer hope to our most vulnerable patients, or do we offer death? Do we rail against suicide, or do we facilitate it?”

Dr. Miller’s piece garnered a huge amount of reader response that included many laudatory comments: a “nuanced and open-ended inquiry here,” “timely and honest,” and “beautifully written.” One reader thanked the author for “this thoughtful, questioning, and open reflection on what it means to be a psychiatrist facing a thorny and deeply personal practice and philosophical question.”

Cognitive distortion or objective reality?

Many readers were opposed to any type of physician involvement in hastening a patient’s death, regardless of whether the condition is medical or psychiatric. “Let others who wish to die make their own arrangement without the aid of the medical profession,” one reader wrote.

But others felt that for those with terminal physical illnesses or intractable pain, it is justified for medical professionals to either facilitate death or, at the very least, withhold life-prolonging treatments.

A critical-care physician described responding to families’ accusations that withdrawal of life-sustaining measures means “playing God.” On the contrary, the physician wrote, “there is a limit to our abilities; and withdrawing those life-prolonging interventions allows nature or God or whatever to play a role and take its course.”

Another U.S. reader pointed out that “multiple polls in this country have shown that the majority of the general public, physicians in general and psychiatrists in particular, support the option of MAID for the terminally ill. They do not find it at variance with their calling as physicians.”

“I and many of my elderly friends don’t fear death but fear prolonged dementia with its dependency and lack of quality of life,” one reader wrote. “We would be much more at peace if we could put in our advanced directive that we request MAID once some point of dependency has been reached.”

Another wrote that in the event of entering a state of “degrading dependency and hardship on the family, please let me go peacefully, without burdening others, into that good night [of death].”

Many felt that not only physical illness but also the prospect of cognitive degeneration – specifically dementia – also justifies assisting patient death.


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