Here in Australia another World Suicide Prevention Day has passed uneventfully. Suicide Prevention Australia made some touching TV advertisements which made me cringe at the pain felt by those left behind. Their anguish is something we too often forget.
As Lifeline, the suicide prevention organisation, puts it, “Suicide loss can impact on physical and mental health. It’s important people bereaved by suicide are treated with compassion and support. They may experience: shock, numbness, denial; searching for reasons ‘why?’; guilt; anger/blame; despair; listlessness; stigma and shame; loneliness and disconnection; depression; thoughts of suicide themselves.”
This message does not seem to be getting through to the media, however. An Australian Senator, David Leyonhjelm, published a libertarian argument for assisted suicide in OnLine Opinion shortly before Suicide Prevention Day. “It is fine to promote the treatment of depression and palliative care,” he wrote. “But it is not acceptable to claim their availability removes the right to make a choice. If free people own their own lives, they must be free to end them if they wish.
This is reckless. All suicides are regrettable; all suicides should be abhorred and we should seek to ensure that suicide prevention measures recognise this.
If we accept that suicide for the elderly or the ill is appropriate, we send a mixed message about the value of life. Diminishing the resistance to all forms of suicide by accepting, as Leyonhjelm suggests, that some lives are “no longer worth living” implies that some suicides are good. This can never be the case in a compassionate society.
In its latest report the World Health Organisation says that one suicide occurs every 40 seconds around the world, with the highest rate amongst people aged 70 and over. This should make us think. Are we going to discriminate against the aged and infirmed in terms of suicide prevention; are we going to allow the former Nazi slogan of “life not worthy of life” to skew our objectives of reducing the number of suicides?
Newspapers often include the phone numbers of helplines at the foot of articles about suicide for those for those who are troubled by suicidal thoughts.
If we take Senator Leyonhjelm’s arguments seriously and legalise assisted suicide, should the editors add more advice? “If you think your suicidal thoughts are rational, phone Exit International. If you are old, sick or fear loneliness, ring this number for a doctor who will help you end it all.”
The only truly consistent approach to suicide is to seek to prevent it in all its forms. Anything less is a failure; a failure of imagination, commitment and of vulnerable people who deserve the protection of the law and the support of our society.
Paul Russell is director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide. He is based in Australia.