Canadian psychologists debate allowing assisted suicide for mentally ill patients as deadline approaches

The disagreement has led to seven of 17 chairpersons of psychiatry to ask federal Health Minister Mark Holland and Justice Minister Arif Virani to halt the timeline and take another look.

The April 2024 deadline for expanding Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program to the mentally ill is fast approaching and psychiatrists are divided over whether this is advisable. 

There is serious concern that the definition of mentally ill will encompass drug addicts, potentially alcoholics too.

“There is no consensus on this issue,” Dr. Sonu Gaind, chief of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, told the National Post. “I firmly think we’re not ready for further expansion.”

As the National Post reports, both sides of the debate are accusing the other of following bad science and disputed reports. The disagreement has led to seven of 17 chairpersons of psychiatry to ask federal Health Minister Mark Holland (L-Ajax) and Justice Minister Arif Virani (L-Parkdale-High Park) to halt the timeline and take another look at the wisdom of allowing people with mental illness to decide whether they want to commit suicide. 

Those wanting to expand the euthanasia program are suggesting that doctors who oppose it are understating the effectiveness of treating mental illness – suggesting that death is always preferable to living with the disease.

“I think there is a kind of grandiosity to thinking you can cure everybody,”  Dr. Donna Stewart, a senior scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, told the National Post.

Stewart was a member of the professional focus group that advises the Trudeau government on who should be eligible for MAiD.

“In spite of the very best efforts, sadly, some psychiatric patients simply do not get better,” she told the Post.

Doctors opposing the expansion of MAiD say the ability of medical science to predict whether mental illness can be arrested or cured is extremely inaccurate. 

“The evidence shows that we are right less than half the time,” Gaind told the Post.

“That means that at least half the people who assessors say, ‘You’re not going to get better from your mental illness, and you can get MAID,’ at least half of those people would have gotten better. Meaning, we would have provided death under a false pretense.”

Canada has become the assisted suicide capital of the world with deaths accelerating every year the program has been in operation. In 2022 – the most recent year with figures available – over 13,200 people used MAiD to kill themselves.

Member of Parliament Ed Fast (CPC-Abbotsford) sponsored a private member’s bill to exclude mental illness from MAiD but the legislation went down to defeat by 167 to 150 votes.

A Parliamentary committee composed of both MPs and senators is continuing to assess whether there is sufficient “degree of preparedness” to introduce MAiD for the mentally ill next spring. 
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