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You Don’t Discourage Suicide by Assisting Suicide

Caroline Downey is a Kiwi currently based in London. In her submission to the Health Select Committee on the investigation into ending one’s life in New Zealand, she writes “we have to start talking about the problem of suicide in New Zealand – not the need for assisted suicide.”

I oppose any legalisation of euthanasia or assisted suicide in New Zealand.

On the 19th of October 2015, The Guardian published an article titled “’We have to start talking about it’: New Zealand suicide rates hit record high”.

Beneath the title is the following brief explanation:

“The country has second highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD and young, Maori men continue to be disproportionately represented in statistics”.

I remember being both shocked and impressed as I sat at my desk (in Auckland) reading this article. The initial paragraph containing a creative yet grim description;

“From Bluff at the bottom of the South Island to Moerewa in the poorer North, New Zealanders are killing themselves at unprecedented rates.”

As I sit now rereading this article (now in London) I am again struck by the thorough concern for our small nation and its “dark statistic”.

It is clear that we have an unresolved, complex, misunderstood, tragic, and incredibly sad problem facing our people. The last thing we possibly need is our response towards those who are suffering to communicate anything less than, or anything but, compassion and support.

Not many years ago, I remember my parents explaining to us that one of the local families in our community had lost their son to suicide. His mum had taught all of us at school, his older brother had been our babysitter, and his dad was involved with all sorts of community projects with our dad, and he (the youngest son) as far we we knew was a bright eyed adventurer- only a few years ahead of my sister at high school. We three kids were completely shocked and put dozens of questions to our parents who also struggled to comprehend the news- unsure about what best to say or do.

I remember other scenarios where my parents also sought to explain an instance of a local farmer who had committed suicide. Each one a dad, a brother, an uncle, son or friend. Men often touted as the “backbone of the economy” yet in reality not dissimilar to any other group of individuals in a particular occupation except that they feature with significant numbers in NZ’s suicide statistics. In an article featured in the NZ Herald in January 2015, Chief Coroner McLean was quoted as saying that within 6 months 14 farmers had “…taken their lives…”

Each unique instance of suicide is cloaked with questions, shrouded with pain, and often contains a mess of misunderstandings about the complex nature of mental, psychological, and physical health. When a person takes their own life the loss is far reaching and leaves whole communities reeling with the pain of realising or discovering that perhaps the person they knew and loved was suffering with the burden of pressure, stress, anxiety, shame, loneliness or guilt but kept it all just beneath the surface.

When discussions have been raised recently in New Zealand about introducing into law a bill that would enable an individual to choose to end their life, my deepest concern is that this (on the back of our absolutely horrific suicide statistics) is not a helpful conversation or perhaps even a conversation that is a step backwards for those living with debilitating mental or physical health conditions.

Into this discussion I wish to add the following questions:

1) What message is communicated when suicide is conflated with compassion and “mercy”?

2) What tone is set for conversations aimed at discouraging suicide and encouraging the unique contribution and place that each young person has, (as a part of the community) when individual notions of “choice” and “freedom” are elevated in relation to assisted suicide?

3) Is it encouraging for a young person living with difficult health circumstances to hear their life (including the daily tasks that they have succeeded in learning or relearning) be compared with that of a different person’s life (perhaps older) for whom it is concluded that for he or she – those same tasks are debilitating and demeaning?

4) Is it encouraging for any individual to have their “quality of life” (with their unique abilities and potential contribution to society) measured and weighed?

5) Who might decide who is to persist with debilitating or demeaning tasks – and who is to not persist? With what factors or considerations might such a complex decision be made? Age, socio-economic status, health condition, ethnicity, gender?

6) What minority voices may not be heard from within our increasingly culturally diverse nation- when it comes to “quality of life”, “choice”, and “freedom”?

7) What culture do we build, when from one generation to the next there is fear surrounding the well-being of our young people in relation to suicide and mental health yet a seemingly fearless attitude towards the elderly, the frail, the lonely or those that suffer with any sort of mental or physical torment – the “choice” to end one’s life is surely not “liberation” for either group? Compassion, care, companionship, understanding, support, space, and acute specialist care are surely what is required or rather what is not being provided effectively?

8) How might the dozens of different organisations established to combat suicide in New Zealand explain the “grey” of an “acceptable” form of suicide and an “unacceptable” form of suicide when asked by someone experiencing emotional turmoil?

These questions matter and it’s simply not good enough to acknowledge the accepted evidence that suicide is a problem in New Zealand on the one hand, and on the other hand pronounce that “assisted suicide” is a necessary step forward for our country without pausing to consider how inextricably incongruent those two notions are.

After losing her son to suicide in 2015, Jane Stevens said that “We have to start talking about it”, and I think she is right. We have to start talking about the problem of suicide in New Zealand – not the need for assisted suicide. Or as Aaron Kheriaty (associate professor and medical ethics director at the University of California) put it in an article in the Washington Post in November last year, “You don’t discourage suicide by assisting suicide.” (emphasis added).

Submissions to the Health Select Committee close on 1 February 2016.

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