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Steve Weatherbe

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U.S. psychiatrists not ready or willing to endorse euthanasia for mental suffering

Steve Weatherbe

December 19, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – America’s psychiatrists have rejected prescribing euthanasia for mental suffering, a justification critics argue has already wormed its way into Canadian medical practice.

The position, which was drafted at the direction of the voluntary group’s general assembly, states that the 25,000-member American Psychiatric Association “holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.”

This effectively rules out support for euthanasia or assisted suicide from psychiatrists for clinical depression or mental illness, even if the depression is caused by a serious or painful physical condition.

“People who are depressed should be getting treatment for depression,” Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition told LifeSiteNews, adding that those with incurable diseases who become depressed or suicidal when diagnosed can recover from the depression and live worthwhile lives.

The resolution coming from the assembly floor at the APA’s last convention noted that psychiatrists were not only becoming involved in approving euthanasia requests in countries where it was legal but that some were being dispatched “by their own treating psychiatrists, some within a psychiatric treatment facility.”

It also noted that “several countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada,” have moved the bar for medical aid in dying beyond the terminally ill to those with “untreatable” or “insufferable” conditions. This resulted in “a growing number of non-terminal mentally ill patients being euthanized in those countries.”

The assembly resolution also mentioned that “insufferable” mental anguish “may be due to treatable, undiagnosed psychiatric conditions,” which “psychiatrists are particularly qualified to evaluate,” including “suicidal thoughts” that lead to patients requesting medical aid in dying.

“A fundamental and critical ethos of psychiatrists is to prevent suicide,” the assembly’s resolution continued, as well as “to help patients find alternative paths through suffering to a better future, and to even find meaning in suffering.”

Despite all this, the APA produced a policy that did not preclude psychiatrists from aiding and abetting euthanasia or assisted suicide where the applicant has a terminal illness.

Schadenberg said psychiatrists in Washington and Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, are simply avoided because they prefer treatment. While the law requires patients seeking assisted suicide to undergo a psychiatric assessment when they show symptoms of mental illness, physicians rarely refer them to psychiatrists. In Oregon last year, 218 people were prescribed fatal doses under the assisted-suicide law, but only five were assessed by psychiatrists.

In reality, Schadenberg said, despite the well-grounded assumption in psychiatry that suicidal desires indicate the need for treatment, those seeking assisted suicide rarely get it.

At the same time, mental suffering is being used in Europe as a sole justification for medical aid in dying, even when technically it is illegal. In Canada, Schadenberg said, the law requires that death be “reasonably foreseeable” and the medical condition very painful, but he believes the time has already come that some doctors are endorsing assisted death for patients whose suicidal thoughts are themselves justification for adjudging death as imminent.

Writing in The Washington Post about the APA’s new policy, staff writer Charles Lane expressed hope that “the APA’s stand may help influence the debate in next-door Canada, where physician-assisted suicide has recently been legalized for physical illness — and the government is going to make a formal study of extending it to requests made by individuals with mental illness as their sole underlying condition.”

Lane also hopes the APA will make “a possible direct organizational protest … to their Belgian and Dutch colleagues, the logical next step in the APA’s welcome assertion of what should be a global ethical principle.”

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