Last month, two girls, one 14-year-old from Miami and a 12-year-old from Georgia, live-streamed their suicides on Facebook. Another 33-year-old man did the same in Los Angeles.
There are 3 million teens in the U.S. experiencing major depressive disorders, a top cause of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second cause of death among 15- to 34-year-olds and third cause of death among people 10-14 years of age. It is now a public health crisis.
On Jan. 23, Compassion & Choices New York welcomed the reintroduction of the Medical Aid in Dying Act for 2017 (S.3151/A.2383), a bill to give New Yorkers the option to take their own life in the final stages of a terminal illness. Co-sponsors continue to be Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, and Assembly member Amy Paulin, D-Westchester.
Rather than working toward solutions that help those who are suffering from the lack of services for physical and mental illness, the most visible adults in the room, our legislators, are drafting bills making it lawful for our physicians to order lethal drugs for terminally ill individuals who want to opt out of life.
How does this relate to the teen suicide rate? It’s tragic enough when an adult takes his life, but when a child does so, it rings of failure somewhere in our system. I fear that we are treading into dangerous territory by normalizing the act of suicide through legislation. Six states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized physician-assisted suicide when life becomes unbearable. A couple of dozen other state legislatures are considering the same.
I ask: Doesn’t our generation have a moral responsibility to publicly reach out to provide our youth with our compassion, our attention and our support to help them through the tough times? Or are we devolving into a society focused on expediency and sanctioning assisted suicide as appropriate medical treatment for the desperate?
The public is being brilliantly anesthetized by changing the language of suicide. Compassion and choices was once named the Hemlock Society. It now calls physician-assisted suicide physician aid in dying. And, legislation has been framed as death with dignity. Let’s be clear: It’s suicide.
Additionally, our own compassion and anxieties about a painful death are being exploited. Research shows that pain is not the top reason for selecting physician-assisted suicide. Only 24 percent of those requesting assisted suicide have a concern about pain while more than 40 percent are depressed, fear loneliness, are tired of life, and worry about being a burden. Such anxieties affect teens as well as grandparents.
I worry about the message our legislators are sending to our struggling children, who are experiencing some of these same issues and opting for suicide at a higher rate than ever before. Instead of working on addressing the needed funding for mental health services, social services, disability advocacy and expanded community support for the most vulnerable, state governments are espousing expediency.
Incredibly, we are asking physicians to repudiate their Hippocratic oath of doing no harm and administering no poison. The American Medical Association stands firmly in opposition to physician-assisted suicide; it is fundamentally inconsistent with the physician’s professional role as a healer.
The physician-assisted suicide movement is a call to action for serious dialogue about how we define our society.
I ask, did we really elect representatives to proudly stand on a public platform supporting legislation for desperate individuals to kill themselves? Is this the message that we want to send to our teens and young adults? Have we just told them it’s OK to end it all?
We can do better than this, and they deserve better from us.