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The Right to Die?
I remember watching a video in my psychology class, a class that focused on death and dying. It was about the aging population in America and the psychological impact of living for so long. The film explored the idea that sometimes, a dying person has no one to care for them, while other times, the family is there, but either way, many of the dying people want to end their lives.
It's a question that physicians and other healthcare providers have grappled with for so long: the possibility of allowing the patient to die, or even helping them kill themselves.
Physician-assisted suicide has long been controversial in America. Some campaigns scream that physicians are supposed to help the patient, not harm them, while others scream that it's for patients to decide, not doctors. It's an issue that has no doubt been embroiled in emotion and politics. It becomes even more controversial when the stigma surrounding suicide is introduced.
Suicide Is a Top Cause of Death
Suicide, or the act of ending one's life, is one of the top ten causes of death in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is considered a major public health risk that has taken a toll on communities, families, and individuals. From their data alone, just over 41,000 people kill themselves per year, and suicide costs an estimated $44.6 billion.
Individuals at risk for suicide sometimes have serious psychological disorders, such as severe depression or bipolar disorder. Other risk factors include a family history of depression, substance abuse, or a history of mental illness. Outside pressures such as bullying or problematic family life can also increase the risk for suicide. And while both men and women commit suicide, men are often more successful than women, only because they tend to choose more destructive methods.
Of course, there are many groups geared towards preventing individuals from committing suicide. For example, Not Dead Yet is a movement that opposes physician-assisted suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a service for those who are thinking about killing themselves. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a partnership dedicated to coming up with strategies that reduce the risk of suicide.
The Cost of Suicide
It's true that suicide is horrible. It costs a community a truly irreplaceable individual whose family now has to grieve for the loss of a loved one. It raises questions about just how much suffering that person had to go through. It draws attention from friends and strangers alike as they all try to find the root cause, all the while honoring that person. It leaves people with an empty feeling, makes them wonder about their own lives, helps them hold each other just a little closer as they celebrate the life of that person.
Physician-assisted suicide is a hotly debated issue. And while it's mostly illegal in America, many patients still seek out physicians who can help them end their lives. So far, physician-assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Vermont, Washington, California, and in some instances, Montana.
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Many who support physician-assisted suicide have stated that it was for the patients to decide, and nothing else. If a patient decides to end their life, they may be able to forgo the suffering from their conditions. Patients have also said that they would rather die with dignity, rather than simply recover and live out life on someone else's terms, rather than their own.
However, other groups say otherwise. Not only does physician-assisted suicide go against a doctor's Hippocratic oath, but it is also backed by many religious groups, who state that committing suicide is against their beliefs. Other arguments made are that the very act degrades the value of human life, as well as the fact that many families and doctors could be giving up on recovery. What's more, many disabled individuals have come out saying that their doctors have given them the status of "terminally-ill", and as such, are stigmatized. In other words, they want to fight for their lives, rather than simply give up.
This issue was brought in full view of the public with a lawsuit involving a woman named Terri Schiavo. Schiavo had fallen into a persistent vegetative state, and as such, her husband became her guardian. He had stated that Schiavo wouldn't have wanted to live out her life the way she's living now, and as such, wanted to remove from life support. Her parents, on the other hand, disagreed, and wanted their daughter to be continued on life support. After a series of legal challenges and disputes, eventually, many politicians have gotten involved, including the likes of President George W. Bush, who was the cause of the seven-year delay of Schiavo's death. During this time, many people have argued for both sides.
Legislation and Stigma Against Suicide
Despite knowing that suicide is a terrible act, in some parts of the world, suicide is considered illegal. Even American history isn't excluded from this. The countries below are a few examples of this.
- In Australia, specifically in Victoria, while suicide itself isn't a crime, if a suicide pact is formed, and one individual from the pact survives, that individual could potentially be charged with manslaughter.
- In Belgium, on 2002 the "Euthanasia Act" made euthanasia legal, but assisted suicide still illegal.
- Before 1972, it was considered illegal in Canada to act to commit suicide. Again in 1993, legislation was written so that assisted suicide could remain illegal. Many disabled individuals felt like they had the right to an assisted suicide, and were robbed of this right.
- Before 1961, there were many laws in place concerning suicide in England, because many individuals believed that the act was not only offensive to the monarchy, but to God Himself. However, when the Suicide Act was passed in 1961, suicide was no longer a crime. But those who assisted in suicide could still be convicted.
Of course, these laws would be incomplete without understanding the implications of them. After all, laws supposedly reflect the cultural values of the country, as well as its collective thoughts. Even so, the passing of these laws underlines a disturbing stigma surrounding individuals who try to commit suicide, a stigma that not only follows them but their loved ones as well. According to an article written by the Huffington Post, author Amy Simpson has stated that this stigma could be due to the way mental health is portrayed in media, shown either as "frightening or funny or both." Many have refused to talk about the problems they've suffered from, and while there are many suicide survivors trying to break out of this stigma, it's difficult. This stigma is pervasive; in fact, even in private medical facilities this stigma continues to exist.
Suicide is something that cannot and should not be taken lightly. If you do find yourself suffering from thoughts of death and suicide, get help. There are many resources available for you, as well as a support system just waiting for you to get back up on your feet. Even so, there is an undeniable aspect to suicide that is also political, cultural, and societal. Suicide is an umbrella term that encompasses many different things, from physician-assisted suicide, to legislation against suicide, to even the stigma surrounding survivors of suicide. It is a holistic problem that encompasses the entire person, and not just one section of them. Culture, society, and beliefs play only a part of what who an individual truly is.
Topics like suicide need to be discussed openly. Whenever people come to us and tell them that this has happened to them, we need to show them compassion and kindness. We need to simply listen to them, and not just treat them like another victim of depression, or bipolar disorder, or circumstance, or whatever else happens to be on our minds. It's through this that we can come up with ways to continue to deal with suicide, and respect the individual, right to the very end.
For More Information
- Suicide Statistics
Statistics about suicide, including how suicide varies by ethnicity, race, and gender.
- Home — AFSP
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is the nation's largest non-profit dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline specializes in crisis services and resources that are best suited for you, your loved ones, and your community.