Assisted suicide is an affront to mental illness, not a cure for it

First published at Global News on April 21, 2017.

After a years-long battle with mental illness, 27-year-old Adam Maier-Clayton committed suicide last week.

His dying wish was to make it easier for other people in his situation to do the same.

The Windsor, Ont., man killed himself to end the debilitating physical and mental pain he experienced as a result of anxiety, mood disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

He tried antidepressants, counselling, and even some experimental therapies, but none of it worked, he said.

Before his passing, Maier-Clayton urged government to amend assisted dying laws “so that sufferers of refractory illness (both mental and physical) have the ability to decide for themselves if they wish to continue suffering and enduring their illness or not.

“If not, giving them a dignified, painless way out of their suffering is what we need to do if we wish to truthfully be able to consider ourselves a civilized society.”

This idea that suicide is dignified and painless is a dangerous one. Take it from someone who tried and failed.

Nearly seven years ago I overdosed on dozens of pills — causing multiple cardiac arrests and weeks in hospital on life support.

I survived, but only narrowly so.

Everything from the method to the date and time was meticulously thought out.

I picked the day because I didn’t have any other appointments scheduled — as though missing a meeting would have been the only problem with my plan any other day.

Suicidal people are irrational. This is true even when decisions appear to be made through logic and reason.

I saw suicide as the answer to pain I was convinced wouldn’t abate.

It wasn’t just about picking the easy way out of an unpleasant situation — it was the only way. I saw no way my life would improve.

Spoiler alert: it did.

Like Maier-Clayton, I had tried myriad therapies, medications, and treatment throughout my years-long battle with depression. By the time I tried to pull the plug on my own existence, none had made an impact.

But after the attempt, that changed. Healing didn’t happen overnight, but things that hadn’t worked previously showed positive results.

My circumstances didn’t change, but my outlook did.

When discussing assisted suicide, mental and physical illness can’t be lumped into one category.

For diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often regarded as the poster diagnoses for assisted suicide, a person’s degeneration is linear and predictable.

That certainty is absent for those with depression or anxiety.

There is a difference between a septuagenarian whose best days are behind them and a 20-something who simply might not have found the right treatment yet.

Assisted suicide activists say those with mental illness are being denied the right to die with dignity just as elderly ALS patients were before the Supreme Court struck down the ban on physician-assisted death in 2015.

Exit International founder Dr. Philip Nitschke, who worked with Maier-Clayton in the lead-up to his suicide, maintains the young man was of completely sound mind to make the literal life and death decision.

“Yes he was suffering. Yes he had a mental illness. But did he have rational decision-making abilities? Absolutely,” Nitschke told me. “And I would challenge anyone to have been able to find any flaws in his thinking.”

Being a pretty good debater, I’m sure I could have sold my own suicide given how convinced I was that it was the right call. That wouldn’t have made it any less flawed a conclusion.

Despite my illness, I functioned in the world in such a way that most people didn’t even realize there was a problem. I worked, engaged and had relationships with others. I appeared normal, despite not thinking normally.

When illness is in the mind, rather than the body, it calls any decision into question — an irreversible one all the more so.

Maier-Clayton’s family experienced a powerlessness that most could never imagine, seeing such suffering in a loved one and not being able to fix it.

The role of health-care practitioners is to try — not to enable one’s disordered thinking by killing them. State-sanctioned death doesn’t help the mentally ill — it robs them of a chance for healing.

In 2010, no one could have told me happiness was possible. Today, I am married to the love of my life, working in a successful career, and able to look forward each day — all just a few years after I signed my own death warrant.

Suicide is a symptom of mental illness — not a cure for it.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.