'Rational' Suicide and People with Terminal Conditions or Disabilities

Article excerpt

As a faculty member at a university teaching hospital and a psychologist who specializes in treating mood disorders and suicidal behavior, I believe that the themes and arguments of Derek Humphry and the Hemlock Society oversimplify the important social debate about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. For example, Hemlock Society material usually ignores basic facts about the usual course of terminal illness and fails to consider the roles that psychiatric illness in general and depressive illness in particular play in giving rise to suicidal feelings and despair. The suicidal communications of the ill should not always be accepted at face value, without seriously considering the possibility that a person talking about suicide may have several different conflicting wishes that need to be understood before conclusions can be reached about what the person really wants.

When pressed, Humphry points to one brief and obscure warning buried deep inside his book Final Exit(1)--a warning that depressed persons reading his book should put it down and seek professional help. This precaution is inadequate. Furthermore, "loss of insight" is a common symptom of depression, and when present means that the depressed reader has little grasp of the nature or severity of his/her illness until after he/she has recovered.

I should emphasize, however, that I believe Humphry and many Hemlock Society adherents are motivated primarily by compassion for the suffering. Humphry clearly has some understanding of the potential for abuse of "assisted death" practices. But regardless of any good intentions, his writings are full of misleading omissions and distortions. Reliable information about physical illness and suicide ought to be made available to the general public so citizens can join the important debate with access to the salient facts. Any thoughtful and informed discussion about euthanasia, the "right to die," and suicide should include the following information.

In what follows, I will review epidemiological trends to document the scope of the suicide problem, outline what research has revealed about terminally ill persons and persons who die by suicide, and emphasize some clinical features of depressive illness that are often overlooked. At the conclusion, I will make some general comments about issues of mental competence and "rational" suicide from my perspective as a psychopathologist.

Suicide Is a Major Public Health Problem

Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than thirty thousand deaths each year. It is a major public health problem, not a narrowly defined psychiatric or psychological problem. When leading causes of death are ranked according to "years of premature life lost," suicide rises in rank order to become the fourth leading cause of death. Those under age twenty-five years make up 16% of the U.S. population and account for 16% of all suicides. Those aged sixty-five years and over make up 12% of the population but account for 21% of all suicides.(2)

Suicide rates in the U.S. are not uniformly higher among older persons. Men aged sixty-five years and over are associated with a much higher suicide rate than other men, but the same is not true for women (Figure 1). Middle-aged women have much lower suicide rates than middle-aged men, and the rate of suicide for women declines after age sixty-five.

Suicide rates in the U.S. are not uniformly higher for those with less access to health care. Caucasian citizens are associated with more education and a higher average income than African-Americans and Hispanics, and consequently Caucasians enjoy better access to health care--yet the suicide rates for Caucasians are consistently two times higher than those for African-Americans and Hispanics (Figure 2),

According to World Health Organization statistics, the U.S. suicide rate is near the middle of the pack on the international scene. …