In Belgium, doctors don’t always try to talk people out of committing suicide; sometimes they facilitate it

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner, Dec. 5, 2013

stop_suicideImagine this conversation at the doctor’s office:

Patient: I’ve gotten so depressed. I feel worthless. I can’t go on. I just want to die.

Doctor: We can do that!

That would be horrifying. Instead of stopping a suicide, the doctor is enabling one. But that would never happen anywhere in the civilized world…right?

Legal euthanasia

Wrong. In Belgium, legal euthanasia is being used to end the lives of people with depression and other psychiatric illnesses.

Under the country’s 11-year-old euthanasia law, people can ask to be put to death whether or not they have any physical illness. They do not need to be terminally sick or in pain. Now, increasing numbers of people with mental illness are asking doctors for death – and getting it.

Last year in Belgium, 13 people with severe mental illness got a dose of death drugs. An additional 42 people with dementia were put down.

Not like Oregon

Euthanasia (literally, “good death”) is different from what’s allowed by Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. Euthanasia involves one person causing the death of another. Under Oregon’s law, the person acts independently to end his or her own life. Doctors can write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, but the patient must take the medicine unaided. No other person is the proximate cause of death, so it is not euthanasia.

Another big difference: Oregon’s law applies only to patients diagnosed with a terminal condition, and it contains safeguards to screen out people who are suicidal because of mental illness.

Washington and Montana have similar laws.

Depressed and suicidal

In September 2012 in Belgium, Nathan Verhelst, 44, depressed over a botched sex-change operation, was given a lethal injection at a euthanasia clinic called ULteam, which says on its website it serves patients whose “demands for euthanasia are not always properly addressed, for example for non-terminal patients and mentally competent psychiatric patients.”

Also in 2012, Godelieva De Troyer, 64, a woman suffering from depression, was medically put to death. Her children learned about it after the fact.

The year before, “Ann G,” a 44-year-old anorexic woman who was the victim of sexual abuse by her psychiatrist, asked for, and received, a lethal “solution” to her problems.

Euthanasia requests in Belgium rose 13% between 2011 and 2012, for a total last year of 4,188. The same trend is apparent among people with mental illness. In 2008, only two psychiatric patients were legally killed by doctors. In 2012, there were 13.