Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Right to die?

Is assisted suicide different from suicide?

The last couple of weeks have seen a slew of high-profile suicide deaths, including designer Alexander McQueen; Michael Blosil, the son of Marie Osmond; and actor Andrew Koenig. Preeminent suicidologist Edwin Shneidman characterized suicidal people as experiencing "psychache," intense emotional and psychological pain. I have to imagine that was the case for the three young men who recently died.

But, for some, suicide is the answer for a different kind of pain.

I've been avoiding blogging about assisted suicide for the past year. But, during the same time period as these celebrity suicide deaths, there was an uptick in media of coverage of assisted suicide. PBS's "Frontline" aired "The Suicide Tourist," a documentary following one man's journey to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal for non-Swiss residents. The Atlantic interviewed Ludwig Minelli, the founder of Dignitas, an organization in Switzerland which coordinates assisted suicide deaths. And, my friends and colleagues wrote to tell me about all of it and ask me what I thought.

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Does assisted suicide undermine suicide prevention? "Obviously!" you might think. Working for a suicide prevention organization, and as a suicide survivor, I really wrestle with supporting idea of suicide - at all.
Since so many people who choose assisted suicide are suffering from incurable degenerative diseases, the cessation of pain - psychache or not - is very appealing. Just as I wish that people who are in extreme emotional pain did not have to experience such terrible pain, I wish the same for people in extreme physical pain. But, will a person who dies by assisted suicide experience more dignity and peace than they would have if they had died by natural causes?

It takes a lot of work to be permitted to die by assisted suicide. An individual is assessed by doctors to determine that assisted suicide is truly what this person wants. But, why assisted suicide and not "just suicide"?

That question brought me back to where, at least for the time being, I'm pretty sure I stand. I believe that suicide is and should continue to be preventable. I believe in human dignity and am not sure that assisted suicide truly aligns with that idea. Finally, I believe that families who allow their loved ones to die by assisted suicide ask a lot of good questions about life and death and still end up losing a family member.

I've been avoiding writing about this topic because I'm so not the right person to address it. The Atlantic article does a good job of telling at least one side of the story; the other side is probably told well on "Frontline." I look forward to reading your thoughtful comments.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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