Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Shuffling off This Mortal Coil

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Shuffling off This Mortal Coil

Article excerpt

Did you know that terminally ill cancer patients are rarely suicidal? Neither did 75 percent of primary care physicians responding to a questionnaire testing their knowledge and attitudes about suicide, reports the American Medical News (20 April 1992). The survey, conducted by Yeates Conwell, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester, also found that over half of the 114 respondents either were uncertain or believed, mistakenly, that suicide often occurs in the absence of psychiatric illness, and less than half knew that the elderly have the highest suicide rate.

Is such doctorly ignorance dangerous? Arguably it is, as about 75 percent of patients who try to kill themselves visit their physicians within a month of the attempt. Practitioners who know all the suicide risk factors are better prepared to intervene. Indeed, those who scored highest on the Rochester questionnaire were most likely to refer patients to mental health professionals and to prescribe antidepressants.

Perhaps, along with such risk factors as substance abuse, social isolation, and physical illness, reading Final Exit should count as a serious indicator of suicidal ideation. A letter in the 26 March 1992 issue of NEJM reports a case in which a "depressed but otherwise healthy" woman tried to obtain cyanide from a pharmacy after reading the book by Derek Humphrey that has achieved notoriety as a suicide manual. …

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