Please review Part 1 as an introduction to this post. Thank you!
This is one of the most difficult posts I have ever written. I wanted to provide some background prior to providing both opinion and scholar resources.
I am an adjunct faculty member in the psychology department of a local community college. I teach 4 classes a semester, am a faculty advisor for 2 student clubs, am active in the Social Justice Collaborative, and provide internal professional development workshops on campus. I currently serve as the chair of our county’s Commission on Disability Issues. One of the student clubs I represent is actually an active chapter of Active Minds, a national organization whose mission is to raise awareness and work towards suicide prevention at a grassroots level by educating college-aged students. I say all of this not to “toot my own horn”, but to make it clear that to me… life is precious. I have worked and continue to work hard to do my part in preventing suicide and helping to erase the stigma associated with mental health illnesses.
Therefore, it may come as a surprise to you that I am also passionate about right to die issues. I have a very focused viewpoint on that, however, and I appreciate your seeing me through to the end of this post. I apologize for the length but I want to give you all the information I have so that you can make an informed decision about your own stance. Rest assured, if you disagree with what is provided here, you may feel free to comment at length in the comment section. I value your input and opinion.
If you follow this blog, you know that I have repeatedly shared how visible and invisible disability and chronic illness go hand-in-hand with mental health diagnoses such as mood disorders (Major Depressive Disorder and Dysthymic Disorder) and anxiety disorders (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, OCD, PTSD, etc.). You can view some of these posts at the following links:
Try to See Each Other Out There
We Are Not Given a Good Life or a Bad Life
A Prisoner of Stigma
Sometimes it Takes Work to Stay Positive
If you watched the HBO video link in Part 1 of this series, you know that one of the stories followed the choice to “die by choice but with dignity” of a lady with a lifetime history of mental health illness. As a person who acquired disabilities later in life, I have been open and honest about my own struggles with panic attacks and depression. There were times in my life where suicidal ideation was an everyday challenge. I have been on medications for nearly a decade and have seen a counselor on and off most of my adult life. It is not my belief that people with mental health diagnosis be allowed to die by choice. With a “whole person” treatment plan to address hopelessness and depression, an individual may recover from mental health illness, or at least manage the symptoms to provide a happy and successful life. Perhaps they aren’t “cured” but their Dx can be managed . I am not in favor of providing end-of-life measures to these individuals.
I am so glad someone was there for me to dissuade me from a poor choice at a low point in my life. Life is precious to me. My life is precious to me, because I recognize the unique opportunity I have as a psychologist and person with disability, to help others discover their own value. Suicide prevention and erasing the stigma associated with mental health illness are important issues to me. It is the beat of my heart.
Having said all of that, because of my work in the disability community I have discovered a subset of this population that deals with a different set of challenges. These are people who live with chronic and debilitating pain, with no cure and no medication that completely alleviates their suffering.
When I get a headache, I take a pain reliever and my PAIN IS RELIEVED.
My mom had hip replacement surgery in August and December of 2019. The worse pain she experienced was treated with prescription opioids and later ibuprofen and HER PAIN WAS RELIEVED.
My 3rd service dog was neutered this week. He was given a post-surgery pain reliever and it appears HIS PAIN IS RELIEVED.
My point is that many people deal with chronic pain. Many of those individuals take pain relievers to alleviate or manage their pain. Some take medications that can be addictive and must weigh the variables of potential addiction to remain pain free. Some people resort to a still somewhat controversial choice of medical marijuana (although why anyone would be judgmental of that is beyond me).
Let us think about a subset of chronic pain sufferers. There are people who live with chronic, excruciating pain who have no options for real pain management. These folks have tried it all. Legal and illegal pain management options have been exhausted. Because of the nature of their disease and diagnosis, they still live with terrible and debilitating pain.
There are numerous studies that tell us that these individuals are at high risk for suicide. Some studies suggest that in the U.S., 1 out of every 10 successful suicides are an individual who lived with chronic pain (Petrosky et al., 2018). It is tough to study suicide in chronic pain sufferers, as they often have comorbid mental health diagnoses as well. (This topic has been covered by Hearing Elmo extensively… see links above). Sometimes the drugs used to treat chronic pain have side effects of depression and mood swings. In a comprehensive study, Racine (2018) found that chronic pain IS a risk factor for suicide; however, although mental health issues can be treated, pain may not be managed well at all. Sullivan (2019) a researcher in pain management and suicidal ideation, suggests that those with pain not managed by medication, corrective surgery, or holistic therapies also struggle with sleep disturbances as they may find it difficult to relax to the point of being able to sleep. Pain + depression/anxiety + sleep deprivation = a high risk for suicide. Doctors are not only tasked with helping patients discover “what is causing my pain?” but also the request to “please fix my pain” (Sullivan, 2019). What is a doctor and patient to do with the latter cannot be addressed?
This next paragraph or so I may lose you if you haven’t watched HBO’s “Right to Die Debate” episode. Again, I request that you view this video above at the first link. I think very few people argue within the “Right to Die” battlegrounds against those who are living in pain and have a terminal disease. Some of these individual’s stories were highlighted in the video segment. Less understood (and I argue that we are less likely to support someone) is the argument of individuals who are not terminal yet living with chronic pain.
I have heard the arguments of many who continually refer back to the fact that LIFE IS PRECIOUS. Many of us have bounced back from very low points and now enjoy life and participate in our communities. I have no answers for those who ask “how can we support anyone’s efforts to deliberately end life if we view life as valuable?”
I have a friend who is like a sister to me that is currently awaiting SSDI appeal and lives with debilitating pain. I have talked with her when stabbing pain robbed her of the ability to speak or sit up straight. This is only evidence of the acute pain that hits her without warning. She lives with chronic pain always and I only notice because the overall fatigue and helplessness is a constant shadow in her eyes. She has seen numerous specialists. Not just in her county and state, but seeking help from specialists in renowned hospitals across our country. She has a pain disorder that has been dubbed “The Suicide Disorder” because of the large number of people who have unsuccessfully tried to manage their pain and simply chose an end to a battle they could not win.
Do I value my friends life? Of course I do. Does she value her own life? I have never met anyone who appreciates and values life as much as she does. It is evident in her own struggles and perseverance as well as her art (she is a photographer). She has struggled with the desire to end her pain in a dignified and supported way. She hasn’t stopped fighting. To date, she continues to fight at great sacrifice.
My goal in writing this 2-part series on this heavy issue is simply to motivate you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I am not advocating easy access to life-ending means for MOST people. I do believe we are naive to believe that all pain can be managed successfully. I think we are ill-informed if we believe people can live this way long term. I do not pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that we should be discussing these issues and allowing individuals living with chronic pain to facilitate these discussions. Respect them, love them, and honor their choices. Can we value life and do any less?
L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.
©2020 Personal Hearing Loss Journal
Petrosky, E., Harpaz, R., Fowler, K.A., Bohm, M., Helmick,C., Keming Yuan, M.S., and Betz, C. J. (2018). Chronic pain among suicide decedents, 2003 to 2014: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2018(169) 448-455. doi: 10.7326/M18-0830
Racine, M. (2018). Chronic pain and suicide risk: A comprehensive review. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 87B(20) 269-280.
Sullivan, M. (2019). What do we owe patients with chronic pain? Pain Medicine 20(5) 878-881.