Even before my 30 year old daughter Marie died by suicide in 2009 using an assisted suicide technique, I was writing and giving talks on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) for years. Even then, I worried about effect of the mainstream media portraying PAS as a civil right and even “courageous”, especially since the existence of suicide contagion aka “copycat suicides” was well known. I was not surprised when after Marie’s death, at least two people close to her became suicidal. Thankfully, they were saved by treatment.
Now we have even more information about this from a Southern Medical Journal a medical journal article that was published at the same time Governor Brown signed the California’s PAS law. In the study “How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?” , researchers meticulously examined suicide rates in Washington and Oregon after those states passed PAS laws.
The results are shocking. In those states, the researchers found a 6.3% increase in total suicide with a larger increase (14.5%) among individuals 65 or older. Moreover, there was no decrease in nonassisted suicides (people taking their own lives), despite the claims of PAS advocates that legalizing PAS would reduce the overall number of nonassisted suicides. Instead, the researchers found that “Rather, the introduction of PAS seemingly induces more self-inflicted deaths than it inhibits.”
On November 20, 2015, the Washington Post newspaper published an excellent op-ed article titled “The Dangerously Contagious Effect of Assisted-Suicide Laws “ by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, an associate professor of psychiatry and head of the medical ethics program at the University of California at Irvine. Citing the medical journal study, Dr. Kheriaty concludes that:
“Debates about physician-assisted suicide raise broad questions about our societal attitudes toward suicide. Recent research findings on suicide rates press the question: What sort of society do we want to become? Suicide is already a public health crisis. Do we want to legalize a practice that will worsen this crisis?”
Is Suicide Really a Public Health Crisis?
The national Centers for Disease Control website reports the following statistics in a section titled “Suicide and Suicide Attempts Take an Enormous Toll on Society”. Here are some excerpts:
• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans
• More than 40,000 people died by suicide in 2012
• More than 1 million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year.
• More than 2 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year.
• Most people who engage in suicidal behavior never seek mental health services.
Costs to Society
The following estimates are based on 2010 CDC data and refer to people age 10 and over.
• Suicide costs society over $44.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs.
• The average suicide costs $1,164,499. (Emphasis in original)
The toll on survivors, family member or friends of a person who died by suicide is also enormous, as I can personally attest:
• Surviving the loss of loved one to suicide is a risk factor for suicide.
• Surviving family members and close friends are deeply impacted by each suicide and experience a range of complex grief reactions including, guilt, anger, abandonment, denial, helplessness, and shock
Fighting Suicide Contagion
It is tragic that suicide prevention organizations ignore the PAS issue and the mainstream media is almost uniformly sympathetic to the PAS movement despite World Health Organization and national media guidelines for suicide reporting. This has allowed PAS groups like Compassion and Choices not only to press harder for universal PAS laws but also to even change the names of such laws to euphemisms such as “End of Life Options” or “Death with Dignity” to disguise the fact that physician- assisted suicide is obviously suicide.
However, Dr. Kheriaty in his Washington Post article also talks about a related phenomenon called the Papageno effect that:
“suggests that coverage of people with suicidal ideation who do not attempt suicide but instead find strategies that help them to cope with adversity is associated with decreased suicide rates.”
I have always maintained that our stories as suicide survivors, people with disabilities or terminal illnesses, etc. offer hope and inspiration while those about PAS promote despair and hopelessness. We need to tell our stories publicly.
All of us and especially people in states that are currently targeted by groups like Compassion and Choices for legalization of PAS, need to know and share the real facts about PAS as well as suicide prevention and treatment, including the national suicide hotline number (1 (800) 273-8255) and website (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org). Suicide prevention and treatment can work whether people are considering PAS or killing themselves.
Addendum: Ironically, just as I was finishing this blog, I was interrupted by a call from a man living in another state with an incurable, disabling condition. He was referred to me last month when he saw a segment on a celebrity’s suicide involving the same condition and decided that he wanted to go to California to use the newly passed PAS law. I talked to this man for quite some time.
I was elated when this gentleman now told me that the resources I recommended, the people he talked to and even just the fact that someone cared did change his mind and he no longer wants to end his life. He said he now wants to start actually living again.
This man’s story shows why we must not discriminate between suicide and physician-assisted suicide when it comes to suicide prevention and treatment.