Denise Batters: Help the mentally ill. Don’t kill them

Published March 14, 2016 in the National Post. Click Here to read the full article here on their site.

Questions surrounding suicide are deeply personal to me. I lost my husband, former member of Parliament Dave Batters, to suicide in 2009, after his struggle with severe anxiety and depression. In the years following his death, I have worked to raise awareness and dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. That has included communicating to those struggling with mental illness, particularly with those who harbour thoughts of suicide, to encourage them not to give up, but to instead reach out for help.

This is why I have reacted so strongly against the recent majority report of the joint parliamentary committee studying physician-assisted suicide. Polls show that most Canadians agree with physician-assisted suicide, but usually those poll questions (and Canadians) assume that only those with terminal illnesses would be given the option. Canadians want strict safeguards on who is eligible for assisted dying and legislators have the responsibility to provide that clarity. The committee report failed to provide either. Instead, it threw open the door to a number of shocking scenarios.

Psychological suffering on its own is not terminal. It is usually treatable, can be episodic and demands a far more complex decision-making proce

ss

The committee did not require that illness be terminal or life-threatening. It included psychological suffering as grounds for physician-assisted suicide — without any requirement to consult a psychiatrist. It even recommended extending physician-assisted suicide to “mature minors,” those under 18. 

Reaching far beyond the parameters outlined in the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision (which only applied to adults and not to psychological suffering), the committee’s recommendations also stretched far afield of where most Canadians stand.

The committee argued that physical and psychological illnesses are essentially the same. But, the only evidence it cited was a one-line opinion from a brief letter, emailed by an individual who did not appear before the committee and had no identifiable credentials or expertise in the area. This is not “evidence-based decision-making.”

As a survivor of suicide loss, a mental health advocate and a lawyer, I would be the last person to suggest that someone struggling with mental illness should receive less equal treatment under the law. However, in the context of physician-assisted suicide, mental illness encompasses certain vulnerabilities that must be considered carefully.

Psychological suffering on its own is not terminal. It is usually treatable, can be episodic and demands a far more complex decision-making process, particularly in determining patient consent.

Significant gaps currently exist in our mental health system, including a lack of access to treatment, long wait lists and insufficient training for health-care providers. We should not give the mentally ill access to assisted suicide if we cannot give them full access to treatment and support options.

Delivering the means to suicide straight into the hands of mentally ill individuals directly contradicts the suicide prevention standard in the mental health field. How can we expect mental health caregivers to advocate suicide prevention on one hand, while signing the death warrant for a mentally ill patient with the other?

The preservation of hope for mentally ill people is absolutely paramount. Those who endure psychological suffering need our support, our resources and our promise that we will never give up on them, even when they can see no other option but to give up on themselves.  

I have lived for almost seven years now without my husband. I have picked up the pieces and moved forward, trying to create something meaningful out of our personal tragedy. And yet, not a day goes by when I don’t wonder if there might have been another way out for Dave — another counsellor, another medical treatment, another conversation that might have made the difference. Because of the finality of his choice, I will never know.

I don’t want more Canadian families to know that kind of pain. In good conscience, we cannot allow physician-assisted suicide to become just another option for those who struggle with mental illness. 

Because of the Supreme Court ruling, physician-assisted suicide will be part of our reality in Canada. But if you believe it should only apply in cases of terminal illness, and not to minors or those who are mentally ill, we need to make our voices heard on this issue — and fast. Please contact your local MP and tell them where you stand. The lives of our vulnerable loved ones might just depend on it.

National Post

Denise Batters, Q.C., is a senator from Saskatchewan.