'There's always hope': CMHA against Bill C-7 changes that allow medical assistance in dying for people with mental illness
REGINA -- The Senate passed amendments to Bill C-7 on Wednesday to give more Canadians access to medically assisted dying, including those who are intolerably suffering but are not near natural death and eventually people suffering from irremediable mental illness.
The changes for people who are suffering and not near their natural end of life take effect immediately, but it will be two years before those suffering from mental illnesses will be able to apply.
The vote was split 60-25 in the Senate, with five abstentions.
CANADIAN MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) said there are more solutions that should be on the table for people suffering with mental illness before medically assisted suicide is an option.
“We are definitely not in favour of allowing mental illness to be the reason to request medically assisted suicide,” Phyllis O’Connor, the executive director of the CMHA Saskatchewan division, said. “Mental illness, while we’re not discounting how serious the suffering can be, it’s not a terminal illness. There’s always hope, with proper supports and access to services, for recovery for people.”
O’Connor said until mental health services are able to give people suffering the support they need to live, the assistance in dying shouldn’t be an option. She said there needs to be more adequately funded and resourced mental health services, just the same as there are for physical health services.
“We’re not saying there’s a cure, there is no cure, but recovery is certainly possible where people can live their best possible life,” she said.
SASKATCHEWAN SENATE VOTES
Conservative Senator Denise Batters, who is from Saskatchewan, voted against the entire amendment because of the message it sends to people with mental illness.
“What we really need to do for people with mental illness is offer them help and support and hope, where they don’t have hope for themselves,” she said. “That’s what we need to be providing, not an easier path to death.”
Batters said she was the only Saskatchewan senator to vote against the bill and has been vocal about her opposition as it passed through every stage.
“I’ve been a mental health advocate in Saskatchewan for more than a decade since my husband passed away due to suicide after battling severe anxiety and depression,” she said. “Irremediable means it will never get better and you just can’t say that about mental illness.”
Over the past few months, Batters said she’s heard from hundreds of Saskatchewan residents who are against this bill.
“They’ve been telling me that they do not want an expanded assisted suicide bill,” she said. “It’s one thing to have assisted suicide for people with terminal illness, but mental illness is treatable. It’s not incurable.”
Senator Brent Cotter, also from Saskatchewan, voted in favour of the changes. He said it was not an easy decision, but after seeking outside legal advice he felt it would be unconstitutional to exclude people suffering from mental illness as the sole underlying condition from the bill.
“For me, the boundaries were trying to set aside aspects of the human questions. Not to dismiss them – they’re important in personal ways to me as they are to many others – but to think of a senator’s responsibility,” he said. “To do what is constitutional and not what is unconstitutional.”
Cotter said he voted for the rest of the bill, including assisted death for those whose natural death is not foreseeable, because that was also lawful and constitutional.
“My view there was that all Canadians should have the autonomous right, the right to exercise autonomy, to end their lives with as much dignity as they could,” he said.
Cotter said he heard a wide range of views from the public. He said some expressed that people suffer just as much from mental illness as others do physical illness. He also heard from the opposing side, and some in the psychiatric profession, who believe many mental illnesses can be addressed and helped.
“But if that’s not a possibility and the suffering is great, I do think we owe it to the individual to defer to their choice,” he said. “This is not imposed on others but people are entitled to make that choice if the circumstances fit the legislative entitlement.”
This bill amendment will not come into effect for two years, and in the meantime a panel of experts will create protocols for people who are interested in using the service.
The CMHA said it would like to have representation on that panel and would like to see representation from someone with lived experienced with mental illness as well.