Recently I was discussing suicide with a person I’d just met. He was surprisingly open about his views that, as it happened, largely coincided with my own.
The conversation then turned to assisted suicide, I proffered the opinion that, if someone was, say, standing on a precipice and about to leap to their death, that I had an obligation to try to stop them. My acquaintance agreed but offered the caveat about someone who, in his example, was a quadriplegic and who had ‘no quality of life’, suggesting that they should be allowed to kill themselves (how exactly we did not discuss).
Thinking about that later it occurred to me that this kind of argument is essentially a form of discrimination – we’re okay with stopping someone from attempting suicide if they’re fit, young and otherwise okay; but if they have some disease or condition or have ‘had a good long life and simply want to go’ then somehow we’re inclined to look upon their suicide attempts differently. This is discrimination on the basis of age, disability and/or diagnosis
This is basically ‘I’m-really-glad-I’m-not-in-their-shoes’ thinking; applying then a misguided sense of compassion that in some strange way works to suppress our natural instincts to help.
‘My life – my choice!’ I hear some say. Too right – yes, suicide has been decriminalised and with good reason. But we cannot overplay decriminalisation and the principle of autonomy to the extent that we no longer care or only care selectively on the basis of our own perception of the quality of someone’s life. None of us can judge that – it’s offensive to do so.
I did mention to my acquaintance that I had known of quadriplegics (using his example) that though their lifestyles were more limited than he or I, were nonetheless enjoying life to the fullest. Once again his retort was to return to the principle of choice. Although quite a popular line of thinking, it really does lack logic.
If choice were the highest principle, then why would we want to stop anyone from killing themselves? After all, the hypothetical young person on the precipice might have unseen physical or psychological difficulties – how would we know? Should we simply walk away because of this person’s choice no matter whether the exercise of that choice has been compromised or distorted or whether or not he might feel better in the morning?
And what about the implications of adopting a ‘some suicides are okay’ approach? Which is precisely what legalising assisted suicide would do. This would be more than just a ‘mixed message’, it would become a downright double standard that can only serve to confuse.
Australia has made a significant contribution to reducing the rate of youth suicide over the last decade and more. This success can be seen in the statistical data where the most significant drop in suicide by age category can be seen in the 25 to 39 age ranges; that is: those who were aged between 15 and 29 years a decade ago. Yet from a statistical low in 2004 (2,098 reported deaths) the total annual deaths from suicide have risen to 2,361 in 2010.
As the graph shows, virtually every 5-year increment from 35 to 39 onwards shows an increase in the number of deaths. I cannot offer an explanation, only an observation that the movement in the graph wave to the right does reflect the five-year gap (2005 to 2010). While that accounts for the maintenance of the shape of the wave, it does nothing to explain why suicides are increasing from middle age onwards.
What this should tell the health authorities is that there probably needs to be an increasing focus on prevention in the later years of life. I recently searched a number of suicide prevention websites and found only one that had a section specifically devoted to this cohort. (That’s not to criticise any of the other worthy initiatives which all have their place and perhaps a different focus)
All of the prevention websites have a healthy approach to mental health. The RU okay? Day launched in 2009 is one such initiative – there are many others. But what do we know of them and could you or I find these sites in a hurry if we needed help for ourselves or for others? World Suicide Prevention Day occurred this year in mid-September. Did you notice? I know I didn’t see much in the way of media reporting. All forms of media have a crucial role to play here.
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Paul is also Vice Chair of the International Euthanasia Prevention Coalition