Death by Doctor May Soon Be Available for the Mentally Ill in Canada

Canada already has one of the most liberal assisted death laws in the world, offering the practice to terminally and chronically ill Canadians.

But under a law scheduled to take effect in March assisted dying would also become accessible to people whose only medical condition is mental illness, making Canada one of about half a dozen countries to permit the procedure for that category of people.

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That move has divided Canadians, some of whom view it as a sign that the country’s public health care system is not offering adequate psychiatric care, which is notoriously underfunded and in high demand.

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which has been criticized for its rollout of the policy, has defended its actions by pointing to a 2019 court decision in Quebec that officials say mandates the expansion.

Members of the Conservative Party have accused the government of promoting a “culture of death.” There has also been opposition from politicians on the left who would like the government to focus its health policy on expanding mental health care.

Jason French is among those building a case for why a doctor should help him die.

With copies of a document describing his troubled mental health history tucked in his backpack, he attended an event in Toronto to lobby for making assisted dying available to people like him.

He has severe depression and has tried twice to end his own life, he said.

“My goal from the start was to get better,” said Mr. French, of Toronto, who agreed to share his name, but not his age because so many in his life don’t know about his illness. “Unfortunately, I’m resistant to all these treatments and the bottom line is, I can’t keep suffering. I can’t keep living my life like this.”

But Dr. John Maher, a psychiatrist in Barrie, Ontario, who specializes in treating complex cases that often take years to improve said he was concerned that hopeless patients will opt for assisted death instead.

“I’m trying to keep my patients alive,” he said. “What does it mean for the role of the physician, as healer, as bringer of hope, to be offering death? And what does it mean in practice?”

Canada’s existing assisted death law applies only to people who are terminally ill or living with physical disabilities or chronic, incurable conditions. The country’s Supreme Court decriminalized assisted death in 2015 and ruled that forcing Canadians to cope with intolerable suffering infringes on fundamental rights to liberty and security.

About 13,200 Canadians had an assisted death last year, a 31 percent increase over 2021 according to a report by the federal health ministry. Of those, 463 people, or 3.5 percent, were not terminally ill, but had other medical conditions. Patients who are approved have the option to end their lives using lethal drugs administered by a physician or nurse, or by taking drugs prescribed to them.

There is still uncertainty and debate over whether assisted death will become available to the mentally ill early next year as scheduled. Amid concerns over how to implement it, Parliament has delayed putting it into place for the past three years and could delay it again.

Clinical guidelines were released to address those concerns last March, but some people involved in providing mental health care say they are insufficient.

Lisa Marr, a paramedic diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said the wait for the assisted dying law to take effect has been grueling.Credit…Carolina Andrade for The New York Times

The proposed change to include the mentally ill has been particularly divisive among some psychiatrists with Dr. Maher and others saying it muddles their efforts to prevent suicide.

But supporters say denying mentally ill people access to the same humane option to end their suffering amounts to discrimination.

“I have a very deep empathy for patients who suffer deeply,” said Dr. Alexandra McPherson, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alberta and assisted death provider. She said she treats a small number of patients “with severe disabling mental health disorders who suffer equally to the patients that I see in cancer care.”

Lisa Marr, a former paramedic diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder who lives in Nova Scotia, said she was desperate to take advantage of the new law. She has bipolar disorder, depression and excoriation disorder, or skin picking, from anxiety and has made, she estimates, 15 attempts on her life but “always managed to pull myself out.”

Ms. Marr at home with her support cat, Fig. “All the medications I take just barely keep me together,” she said.Credit…Carolina Andrade for The New York Times

“The only reason I haven’t done it yet, I think, is I’m waiting for this decision in March,” she added.

Canada amended its criminal code to legalize assisted death for the terminally ill in 2016, and in 2021, responding to the court ruling in Quebec, the country loosened the law to add other severely ill people experiencing “grievous and irremediable” conditions.

Eligible patients must wait 90 days before receiving an assisted death and be approved based on the assessments of two independent physicians. One of the assessors must be a specialist in the patient’s illness or have consulted with a specialist.

A panel of experts and a special parliamentary committee have worked to address concerns from the public and medical community, by laying out practice standards and advising clinicians and regulators.

The government has also funded the development of a training program for physicians and nurses who assess patients for assisted death.

“The work has been done,” Dr. Mona Gupta, the chair of a government-appointed expert panel — who is a psychiatrist and bioethics researcher at the University of Montreal — told a special parliamentary committee in November. “We are ready.”

Anyone in Canada seeking assisted death must be deemed by the physicians or nurse practitioners who assess them as not impulsive and not suicidal, and those who are mentally ill would need to be evaluated to show that their condition is “irremediable.”

But even some psychiatrists worry that they may not always be able to determine if someone seeking an assisted death could actually get better or not.

“The research that we have shows psychiatrists are no better at identifying who’s not going to get better,” said Dr. Maher, the psychiatrist in Ontario. “The challenge for us is it’s not a short term process. When people have been sick for years, healing takes years.”

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest teaching hospital for psychiatric care and research, has said that clinicians need more guidance to assist them in assessing who is acutely suicidal or capable of making a rational choice to end their lives.

“We’ve been clear that we have concerns about expansion at this time,” said Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, chief medical officer at the center, which has convened several professional groups to assist physicians in preparing for March.

Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam is the chief medical officer at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest teaching hospital for psychiatric care and research.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

Ms. Marr, the paramedic, said the wait for the law to take effect has been grueling. She takes eight psychiatric drugs every day. “All the medications I take just barely keep me together,” said Ms. Marr, who is on disability leave and spends most days in her room, leaving home only for therapy.

Her father had an assisted death after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and her mother died shortly after, all while she was juggling her job as a paramedic.

“Then, my mental health started to rear its ugly head,” she said.

The uncertainty over whether the mentally ill would be allowed assisted death motivated Mr. French to leave his home after work, something his depression rarely allows him, to attend a screening of a documentary financed by Dying With Dignity, a charity promoting assisted death.

He went with several copies of a five-page document he created explaining his case, hoping to give it to medical experts at the screening.

Death doesn’t scare him.

“My biggest fear is surviving,” he said.

He said he’s not suicidal. But, he added, “I don’t want to have to die terrified and alone, and have someone find me somewhere. I want to do it with a doctor. I want to die within a few minutes, peacefully.”

“My biggest fear is surviving,” Mr. French said.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

Both Canada and the United States have a three-digit suicide and crisis hotline: 988. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 and visit (Canada) or (United States) for a list of additional resources. This service offers bilingual crisis support in each country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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