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Should assisted suicide be legal for people with mental illnesses?

Two mental health advocates, both with personal experience with suicide, talk about legalizing assisted suicide for mental illness. Arthur Gallant says people with mental illnesses deserve the same right to assisted suicide as people with physical illnesses, while Mark Henick says mental illness should never be considered terminal.

In February, the Parliament's Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Death released a series of recommendations about criteria for legal assisted suicide. One of their recommendations was that Canadians with mental illnesses should not be excluded from legislation governing assisted suicide. 

The recommendation has touched off a debate between patients, doctors, policy-makers, and medical ethicists about assisted suicide and mental illness. 

Arthur Gallant is a mental health advocate from Hamilton who supports the parliamentary committee's recommendation. He argues that people with mental illnesses who have been deemed to be competent, have undergone a rigorous consultation with doctors, and have exhausted all their options, should have the same rights as people with physical conditions like cancer. 

Gallant says he's not sure whether he would ever choose to apply for an assisted death, but he wants to know the option is available. 

"It doesn't mean that I'm going to use it, but it's going to put me at peace, that should these feelings and my illness become too overwhelming for me, that there is a way to end it once and for all. And I simply feel like my quality of life would increase simply knowing that's available to me," he says. 

Gallant says his perspective has put him at odds with others in the mental health advocacy community. 

"Some national mental health organizations have said to me, you know, 'We have strived for decades now to prevent suicide. How can you now be speaking out publicly, saying, 'Actually, our community should have the right be able to take their own life?'" he says. 

"And so my argument with the mental health community is that it's freedom of choice, it's freedom of body, and nobody should be telling me what it is I can or cannot do with my body."

Mark Henick is a mental health advocate in Toronto who supports the right to assisted suicide in cases of terminal physical illnesses, but does not believe assisted suicide should be an option for people with mental illnesses.

"Like most Canadians, I support dying with dignity if somebody is at the end of their life and they've exhausted all their treatment options," says Henick.  "But the difference is that somebody with a mental illness doesn't have to die."

Henick argues that while it's important to achieve parity between mental and physical health, cancer and depression are fundamentally different and require different forms of treatment. He says it's difficult to say that anyone has exhausted all their treatment options for a mental illness because of complex barriers to care, and he wants to see the mental health system improved before assisted suicide is considered an option. 

"If we fix the system first, and we're still seeing that there is such thing as a terminal mental illness, then I'd be willing to take a closer look at this," says Henick. "But as it stands right now, I've never met anybody who has actually been offered the opportunity — as is their right — to try everything they can to get better."

Parliament has until June 6 to draft legislation governing assisted suicide.  

Click the blue 'play' button to hear Jim Brown's interviews with Arthur Gallant and Mark Henick.