With the emergence of modern medicine in the 19th Century, the meaning of suicide changed again and it is this understanding that prevails today. Suicide is now generally thought of as an illness. If a person wants to end their life, then they must be sick (psychiatric illness, with depression the usual diagnosis). The appropriate response, therefore, is medical treatment (in the form of psychiatric counselling and/or anti-depressant medications).
At Exit International, we question the view of suicide that automatically links a person’s decision to die to depression and mental illness. Are we seriously postulating that the suicide bombers of the Middle East are depressed? Rather, the act of suicide must be seen as context dependent.
For example, a person who is very elderly and who is seeing friends die around them on a weekly basis and who must be wondering ‘am I next?’ is going to have a very different outlook on dying than the young person who has their whole life in front of them. Likewise, when serious illness is present. A person’s attitude towards death must be understood in the context of that person’s situation.
In Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is legal, symptoms of depression have been found in 20 per cent of patients who request PAS (Battle, 2003). A 1998 Australian study reported 15 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women who suicided had ‘an associated or contributory diagnosis of a mental disorder’ (ABS, 2000). At Exit we argue that feelings of sadness (as opposed to clinical depression) are a normal response to a diagnosis of a serious illness.
This is why some studies continue to find a sadness associated with a serious illness. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist