If Canada’s incoming assisted dying rules were there a decade ago, I’d be dead
In four months, barring a political miracle, people in Canada struggling with mental illness will be eligible for medically assisted deaths.
It is the starkest and most dangerous expansion of access since Canada legalized assisted suicide in 2016. Patients needed to be facing “reasonably foreseeable” natural death to be eligible. That requirement was eliminated by Bill C-7 in March 2021.
Survivors and experts urged the Liberals to exclude people suffering only from mental illnesses, but the government wouldn’t budge. Their only concession was to defer it with a two-year sunset clause, which expires next March.
This issue is personal for me. Had this form of medically assisted dying been around in 2010, I’m confident I’d be dead right now.
I was 21. Despite some unexpected medical issues in 2009, I was generally healthy (physically, that is). I had a roof over my head. I had a loving family. I had dreams.
But I was depressed. I was making reckless decisions. I was becoming more convinced I’d be better off dead. It wasn’t a sensible conclusion, but I felt it was the right one and was pretty good at rationalizing it.
In December 2010, I overdosed on a cocktail of prescription medications to end my life. I had tried before, though never came as close to succeeding as this time.
I spent weeks in hospital, some of it in an induced coma. I went into cardiac arrest several times. My parents were told to say goodbye.
My suicide attempt was not a choice to be celebrated. It was the ugly face of a devastating mental illness.
By the grace of God and a skilled, dedicated team of doctors and nurses, I survived. It’s sickening to think that the healthcare system that saved my life in 2010 could, in 2023, help me end my life instead.
When I was deciding how I wanted to go, I knew I didn’t want family members to stumble upon my body. I didn’t want anything that would leave a mess. I also didn’t want to be stuck with some serious disfigurement if I failed.
The option offered by the government – a clean death with a 100 per cent success rate – would have been alluring. Even if someone doesn’t go through the official channels to end their life, the government is sending a signal to people with mental illnesses that suicide is to be sanctioned, not stopped.
Under the C-7 changes, someone in my situation would have to undergo a 90-day assessment involving multiple visits. They would have to be “informed of the means available to relieve their suffering, including, where appropriate, counselling services, mental health and disability support services, community services and palliative care.”
Already, people are seeking assisted suicide from a place of desperation. Last month, a St. Catharines, Ont. man applied for assisted suicide because he couldn’t find social supports to help him live comfortably. Earlier this year, an Ontario woman died with assistance after a failed search for affordable housing.
Nothing in Bill C-7 requires someone to have exhausted all other avenues of support to get an assisted death. Though even if it did, I would have had a strong case.
Unlike so many, I had been fortunate enough to find support. I had tried different antidepressants. I had seen numerous therapists. I was regularly seeing a psychiatrist until shortly before my suicide attempt (hardly a ringing endorsement for him, I realize).
I had given up. I was convinced nothing would work. To use the language of Canada’s assisted dying laws, my condition felt grievous and irremediable.
Disordered as my thinking was, I would have been able to sell a doctor on it. I could have made what sounded like a thoughtful and rational case for suicide because I was building such a case in my own head daily.
When assisted dying was legalized in Canada, it was sold as an end to suffering when recovery was impossible. For patients with degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis or ALS, this is undoubtedly the case. Such certainty often does not exist with mental illness.
My life today is living proof that I had reason for hope in those dark periods. With internet discourse being what it is, I’m hesitant to ask whether the world would be better off if I weren’t around today, but I’m happy I am.
Now, imagine I had been going through this not in 2010, but in 2023. Suicide would no longer be something from which the state could protect me, but something the state would facilitate. Pleas from loved ones to reconsider would be met with a system telling them to butt out, because it’s my choice. That is, if family members were even aware.
I kept my suicidal feelings from everyone because I didn’t want to be stopped. It’s particularly sickening to know that someone could go through this process entirely unbeknownst to their loved ones.
Family members have no legal right to intervene, nor can they even be notified unless the patient tells them.
This is not healthcare. This is not death with dignity. This is giving up on those who are suffering.
Psychiatrists have long had the authority to institutionalize people who plan on harming themselves. After my suicide attempt, I had to spend time in a psychiatric ward. I remained there voluntarily but was told if I wanted to leave, I’d be kept there involuntarily.
If I told a doctor in 2010 I wanted to kill myself, I’d be institutionalized. If I had the same conversation next year, I’d get a referral to someone who could help me do it.
Reprinted with permission.
Other Commentary by Andrew Lawton:
- Si les nouvelles règles canadiennes sur l’aide à mourir existaient il y a dix ans, je serais mort
- If Canada’s incoming assisted dying rules were there a decade ago, I’d be dead