Updated: Oct 24
I remember what it was like to be a medical student at a well-known cancer hospital where patients were dying of cancer. In life's final stages, it was not uncommon for physicians to increase the dose of morphine; it alleviated pain, eased labored breathing, and yes, probably hastened the inevitable for patients who were in their final hours. In these scenarios, no one considered this euthanasia, and no one questioned whether it was the right thing to do.
Fast-forward to 2023 when the act of a physician hastening a patient's death has become a controversial topic as criteria have expanded. Like all such topics in our polarized society, people aligned on sides, politics, and religion rush to the head of the room, legislation is proposed, and words take on new meanings. If you're in favor of legalization of clinician assistance in a patient's death, the term is medical assistance in dying (MAID). If you're opposed, the term is the more graphic physician-assisted suicide.
The scenario is entirely different from what I saw in my medical school rotations decades ago. It's no longer an issue of easing the pain and discomfort of patients' final hours; the question now is whether, faced with a potentially terminal or progressively debilitating physical illness, a patient has the right to determine when, and how, their life will end, and the medical profession is given a role in this.
In many places the bar has been further lowered to incorporate nonterminal conditions, and Belgium and the Netherlands now allow physician-facilitated suicide for psychiatric conditions, a practice that many find reprehensible. In these countries, patients may be provided with medications to ingest, but psychiatrists also administer lethal injections.
While Belgium and the Netherlands were the first countries to legalize physician-facilitated death, it could be argued that Canada has embraced it with the most gusto; physician-assisted suicide has been legal there since 2016.
Canada already has the largest number of physician-assisted deaths of any nation, with 10,064 in 2021 — an increase of 32% from 2020. The Canadian federal government is currently considering adding serious mental illness as an eligible category. If this law passes, the country will have the most liberal assisted-death policy in the world. The Canadian government planned to make serious mental illness an eligible category in March 2023, but in an eleventh-hour announcement, it deferred its decision until March 2024.
In a press release, the government said that the 1-year extension would "provide additional time to prepare for the safe and consistent assessment and provision of MAID in all cases, including where the person's sole underlying medical condition is a mental illness. It will also allow time for the Government of Canada to fully consider the final report of the Special Joint Committee on MAID, tabled in Parliament on February 15, 2023."
As a psychiatrist who treats patients with treatment-refractory conditions, I have watched people undergo trial after trial of medications while having psychotherapy, and sometimes transcranial magnetic stimulation or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The thing that is sustaining for patients is the hope that they will get better and go on to find meaning and purpose in life, even if it is not in the form they once envisioned.
To offer the option of a death facilitated by the very person who is trying to get them better seems so counter to everything I have learned and contradicts our role as psychiatrists who work so hard to prevent suicide.
Where is the line, one wonders, when the patient has not responded to two medications or 12? Must they have ECT before we consider helping them end their lives? Do we try for 6 months or 6 years? What about new research pointing to better medications or psychedelics that are not yet available? According to Canada's proposed legislation, the patient must be aware that treatment options exist, including facilitated suicide.
Physician-assisted suicide for psychiatric conditions creates a conundrum for psychiatrists. As mental health professionals, we work to prevent suicide and view it as an act that is frequently fueled by depression. Those who are determined to die by their own hand often do. Depression distorts cognition and leads many patients to believe that they would be better off dead and that their loved ones would be better off without them.
These cognitive distortions are part of their illness. So, how do we, as psychiatrists, move from a stance of preventing suicide — using measures such as involuntary treatment when necessary — to being the people who offer and facilitate death for our patients? I'll leave this for my Canadian colleagues to contemplate, as I live in a state where assisted suicide for any condition remains illegal.
As Canada moves toward facilitating death for serious mental illness, we have to wonder whether racial or socioeconomic factors will play a role. Might those who are poor, who have less access to expensive treatment options and social support, be more likely to request facilitated death? And how do we determine whether patients with serious mental illness are competent to make such a decision or whether it is mental illness that is driving their perception of a future without hope?
As psychiatrists, we often struggle to help our patients overcome the stigma associated with treatments for mental illness. Still, patients often refuse potentially helpful treatments because they worry about the consequences of getting care. These include career repercussions and the disapproval of others. When this legislation is finally passed, will our Canadian colleagues offer it as an option when their patient refuses lithium or antipsychotics, inpatient care or ECT?