New guidance on preventing suicide was issued to every local authority in Scotland last month in a bid to harmonise the approach taken in different council areas. It is a hugely welcome initiative. Figures show that 833 people died of suicide in Scotland in 2019 – an average of two people every single day. These figures are distressing. A clear and consistent approach to suicide prevention will aid health providers, police officers and others in bringing them down.
Every suicide is an immense tragedy that affects family members and loved ones of the deceased for the rest of their lives. It is something that we should all want to see eradicated from Scottish society. No person should be allowed to feel so utterly helpless that ending their life seems like the only way out.
No death by suicide should ever be considered inevitable
The National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group (NSPLG), which authored the guidance, is clear that we all have a role to play.
Scotland’s compassionate approach to suicide and those affected by it seems wholly at odds with calls for assisted suicide
It states: “Our vision is of a Scotland where suicide is preventable, where help and support is available to anyone who is contemplating suicide and to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. No death by suicide should ever be considered inevitable.
“We believe suicide prevention is everyone’s business and the launch of this guidance will help to support local communities who have such an important role in keeping people safe from suicide.”
This compassionate approach to suicide and those affected by it seems wholly at odds with calls for assisted suicide – or as it is euphemistically termed “assisted dying” – in Scotland.
There is a growing push for legislation to allow terminally ill people to access state-sponsored suicide. Campaign group Dignity in Dying, formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, has called for legislation in the next parliament and is seeking to make the subject an election issue.
There is always hope
Proponents of assisted dying would say the two issues are separate, but are they? With both suicide and assisted suicide, we are talking about vulnerable people who are experiencing pain and distress – either mental, physical or emotional – and seeking to bring about an end to their lives. The assumption in both scenarios is that some situations are utterly hopeless and that death is the only solution.
As a society, we should reject this impulse. People do face desperately hard situations in life, whether it is acute mental anguish, terminal illness or non-terminal conditions that take away a person’s faculties. But there is always hope.
In medical terms, there is no condition that cannot be alleviated through proper palliative care. And there are brilliant charities that provide support to the suffering, whether it is monetary, psychological, or just through coming alongside people in their situations to help them find meaning and purpose.
In jurisdictions that have legalised assisted dying or euthanasia, there is evidence of a rise in suicide more widely. A 2015 study from the United States found that making it legal for doctors to assist someone to end their life resulted in a 6.3% increase in total suicides. The report’s authors concluded that changing the law was associated with “an increased inclination to suicide in others”. This implies that changing the law to allow assisted dying has engendered a culture change. Suicide is now viewed as more acceptable.
Suicide should not be seen as acceptable in certain instances for certain people
If professionals in Scotland are presently working hard to raise awareness about suicide, identify those at risk and encourage them down a different path, their efforts will surely be undermined by legislation stating that suicide is acceptable in certain instances, for certain people. Even if safeguards are proposed to limit the scope of an assisted dying law, the wider effects in society will be far less controllable.
Over the last 12 months, we have all made sacrifices in order to limit the spread of coronavirus and protect the vulnerable in society. This communicates something vitally important: a respect for and cherishing of human life.
We strive to protect life in many ways – through medicine, through policing, through neo-natal care. Legalising assisted suicide would undermine this ethic.
When it comes to suicide, we must continue to view the ending of a human life as a profound tragedy. This means opposing any move to put assisted suicide on the statute book.