Mental Health and Assisted Suicide
Eliane Mitchell

11 August 2017

Should people with a mental illness be helped to die if that is what they wish?

Following Canada's legalization of assisted suicide for terminally ill people in 2016, Adam Maier-Clayton led a campaign for his own right to death. Suffering from Somatic Symptom Disorder, a mental illness which expresses itself as physical symptoms without an apparent bodily cause, Adam insisted that Canada include mental health problems in its legislation for assisted suicide—but to no avail. Adam committed suicide this April, without his family beside him and after four years of suffering from crippling and untreatable pain.

Adam's story is no less important, however, given his achievements in sparking new, yet controversial discourse in Canada. While some skeptics fear that assisted suicide, if its requirements are expanded to mental health conditions, will simply provide people an "'out' to tough situations" (medicine should only aim to alleviate, not eradicate, suffering, the argument goes), pro-euthanasia campaigners contend that people suffering from severe mental health conditions, like Adam, deserve a dignified way to die. Should there be a distinction between mental and physical illness vis-a-vis a person's eligibility for assisted suicide, as Canadian legislators have decided? Or do legislators (justifiably or unjustifiably) delegitimize the suffering caused by mental illness when they mandate people like Adam to "tough [their disorders] out"?

Assisted suicide is often discussed in the abstract, but now it is time for ethicists and legislators to contemplate this issue more concretely. In terms of assessing who is eligible for assisted suicide, to whom should the responsibility of appraising suffering (mental or otherwise) fall—doctors, patients, "family witnesses," or legislators? Would Adam's case have been less compelling if his mental disorder had caused him memory loss or schizoprenia, let's say, rather than physical pain? Learn more about Adam's poignant story here and tell us what you think in the comments below.