A Winnipeg woman has a dying wish that's sparking fear among mental health advocates — she is living with depression and wants to take her own life with the help of a physician-assisted death when it becomes law.

"[My colleague] told me that if she could get an assisted suicide now, she'd go through with it," said Tara Brousseau-Snider, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba. "If it was in place, they'd apply for it."

Lawmakers have until June to craft physician-assisted death legislation and Brousseau-Snider fears it will allow for a dangerously easy exit plan for people in emotional despair.

Before then, Brousseau-Snider hopes the woman will find a successful treatment for her depression.

"I'm very concerned for her," Brousseau-Snider said. "And I'm very concerned about this law. It's not a permission-giving thing. Governments should not mandate that if you're depressed, it's OK to kill yourself."

Upcoming law unclear

In fact, it's unclear whether the law will allow that.

In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a ban on physician-assisted death. Now lawmakers must decide not only how to provide it, but who will be allowed to access it.

Tara Brousseau Snider

Tara Brousseau Snider of the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, says persons living with depression need better treatment, not better access to physician-assisted death. (CBC)

As it stands, it will only be available to persons living with a "grievous and irremediable" medical condition with "intolerable suffering." It remains to be seen whether mental illness will fall under that criteria.

"Let's just say I am glad it wasn't legal before now," said John Melnick, who's lived with depression for decades, and tried three times to kill himself.

"Because if [physician-assisted death] was in place then, I likely would have tried to get one. And I wouldn't be here today."

Melnick said thanks to a combination of therapies, he is today alive and well.

Treatment-resistant depression a reality

But not everyone responds to treatment, and that's why some experts say physician-assisted death should be made available to those people.

Dr. Udo Schuklenk hopes it will. Schuklenk is a Queens University professor of philosophy and the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics. He also headed the Royal Society of Canada's 2011 panel on end-of-life decision making.

Udo Schuklenk

Queen's University Bioethicist Dr. Udo Schuklenk says persons living with treatment resistant depression should be eligible for physician-assisted death. (Dr. Udo Schuklenk)

Schuklenk notes that more than 40 per cent of persons living with depression do not respond to treatment; at least, not for an extended period of time. And for those living with "treatment-resistant depression," the pain is as real as any other debilitating illness.

"It's very difficult for people to intuitively understand what suffering is involved in something that is not 'quote unquote' physiological. But the truth is, of course, anything that's happening in our bodies is physiological," Schuklenk said.

"Still, for some reason, people are able to understand cancer or a broken leg. Depression is just, 'You know what? Get your act together.' And I think that's very unfortunate."

Schuklenk also dismissed fears that anyone having a "bad day or week" could easily access a physician-assisted death.

"Nor would I want them to," he said.

That risk could easily be addressed with the proper safeguards, he noted, pointing to countries like Belgium, where people living with depression can legally access an assisted suicide. But first, they must be assessed by more than just one physician to make sure they're mentally competent. They must also wait for a "cooling-off period" to make sure they don't change their mind.

In the U.S, physician-assisted death is legal in varying degrees in five states. None allow it for persons living with mental illness.


For more information about mental health resources; Klinic Community Health Centre 24 Hour Crisis Line is 204-786-8686. Or contact John Melnick at www.johnmelnick.ca or the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba at www.mooddisordersmanitoba.ca.