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Help, not DIY advice, should be offered to the suicidal

By Brian Harradine - posted Thursday, 2 June 2005

Fiona Stewart wants people who are suicidal to have information on how to take their life (On Line Opinion, May 19). It is “of little importance” to her whether they are terminally ill or not. But it is of the greatest importance that vulnerable people are protected from her lethal influence.

Suicide is a serious problem in Australia. More than 2,200 people commit suicide each year. That’s more than the annual road toll of over 1,500 deaths per year that we see regularly reported on the television news. Images of broken and crushed cars are more easily seen and understood than the private shattered lives and anguish of people who resort to suicide. The World Health Organisation states suicide is “… a huge but largely preventable public health problem, causing almost half of all violent deaths and resulting in almost one million fatalities every year …”

To help tackle this problem the Federal Government recently introduced legislation to stop Australians promoting suicide or providing information or material on how to commit suicide using the Internet, email or telephones. The legislation is consistent with research that says one of the most effective ways of reducing the suicide rate is to limit people’s access to the means of suicide.


This is what Stewart is complaining about. She equates democracy with the right to tell vulnerable people how to kill themselves. I see democracy as a means to help people improve their lives.

Legislators have a responsibility to protect the community, for the common good. It is important to ensure that those who are vulnerable are encouraged to seek help rather than end their life. The law also has an educative role. Laws such as the bill under consideration educate society that there is value in the life of every human being, and that special care should be provided to those who are vulnerable for any number of reasons.

Fiona Stewart’s partner in death, Philip Nitschke, complained to a Senate committee that “rational adult Australians” will not be able to access information to commit suicide. But his position is not consistent. Dr Nitschke is on record saying suicide pill information should be provided to all who want it - not just rational adults. “Someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or recourse necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, the troubled teen.”

And who decides who is “rational”? Nitschke, of course. Not that he goes to much trouble to check. Rather than seek the opinion of a psychiatrist, he says “common sense is a good enough indicator”.

Yet depression - a treatable condition - is one of the major factors driving the suicide rate.

Whether a patient is suffering from depression or not is clearly an important matter that deserves expert medical assessment. The World Health Organisation has determined that “depression plays a major role in suicide and is thought to be involved in approximately 65-90 per cent of all suicides with psychiatric pathologies”. Another study found three quarters of elderly suicide victims suffered from a psychiatric disorder at the time they died.


Undiagnosed depression is a major danger for suicidal people. Depression is more difficult to detect than many other health conditions because those suffering the condition are often unaware of their illness. Yet it is ignored by providers of do-it-yourself suicide information. Research shows people with suicidal thoughts, but who are ambivalent about committing suicide, can be encouraged on Internet chat sites to take their life.

Vulnerable people, who are considering ending their lives, see in suicide advice an endorsement of their disordered thinking. They see a justification for committing the act of suicide rather than seeking the help they obviously need.

Compassion is not giving someone information on how to commit suicide. Compassion is looking to the reasons they want to take such desperate action. Compassion is addressing people’s pain, depression, loneliness or fear. It is helping them with their mental health, physical illness or substance abuse.

There’s no dignity in being told you’re right to want to commit suicide because your life is awful. Dignity comes from knowing that whatever your health and your personal shortcomings, there are people there who will love and support you, no matter what. We should concentrate efforts on helping to make sure this kind of assistance is available to all who need it.

The laws proposed by the Federal Government are necessary because they target those who prey on the despair, depression, sadness or loneliness of other people by counselling or inciting suicide, or by providing information on methods of suicide. But the legislation is not enough in itself. The Government must also address the health, social and personal factors which drive people to consider suicide in order to come up with a well-rounded solution to this very serious problem. More resources are needed for proactive approaches to finding and helping suicidal people to overcome their personal difficulties and to live long and fulfilling lives.

Let’s tackle the problem of people committing suicide rather than trying to increase the numbers. Suicide is an act of self-destructive violence that leaves in its wake further pain and suffering for those who are left behind.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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Senator Brian Harradine was an independent Senator for Tasmania.

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