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An assisted dying law would save so much trauma


An illustration of a mind free from trauma

Opinion by Safia Yallaoui

Why pay such a traumatic price for something that we will all have to go through?


According to data found by the Office for National Statistics, the suicide risk of terminally ill people is more than double that of the general population. It’s no wonder then, that according to the campaign group Dignity in Dying, around 650 terminally ill people in the UK take their own lives every year.


Other countries have legalised assisted dying, to help people who are suffering from a terminal illness to have control over their own deaths. To name a few, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Canada have all implemented a safe assisted dying law. It’s saving many people who are terminally ill from needless suffering, not to mention the trauma that their families are left with after watching their loved ones in pain. But despite 84% of Britons supporting the choice of having an assisted death, making it legal still doesn’t appear high on the government’s agenda.


In Scotland, it’s not a crime specifically to assist a suicide but if you do, you could be prosecuted for culpable homicide – a blurred line shall we say. But in England, Wales and Northern Island, assisting someone’s suicide could land you up to 14 years in jail. Without a legal way for terminally ill people to end their lives if they wish, they are needlessly suffering both physically and mentally.


A story of gradual deterioration


Holly, from Somerset, was just 28 when she lost her mum Anne to a terminal illness. Nine years later, her mother’s suffering still deeply saddens her to this day. Anne was 63 when she was diagnosed with a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which made it feel like she was breathing through a straw. She was given just six months to live.


Holly says: “At first, Mum was able to look after herself and move about at a slow pace, but she was gradually deteriorating. Carers would come in once a day, but eventually Mum got to the point of needing round-the-clock care. Me and my sister had to give up our whole lives to be there for her 24/7. We were happy to do that of course, but it was hard emotionally and mentally seeing Mum like that every day. We had to do everything for her. Doing any little thing would tire her out because of her constant struggle to breathe, which was frustrating for her. She was on morphine to sedate her but it meant she was sleeping a lot and had no quality of life at all.”


Medical professionals never brought up the subject of a hospice, but nevertheless, Holly knows Anne would’ve preferred the comfort of her own home. She surpassed her six-month prognosis and her quality of life was only getting worse. She was on constant oxygen but breathing was still difficult for her. Anne expressed that she hated being a burden on her daughters, but four months before she would pass away, she became bed-bound.


“She couldn’t even read or watch TV to pass the time. She could speak and hear but she could barely eat or drink,” explains Holly, “and she slept most of the day. She was existing rather than living. But she was fully there mentally. It became very clear she was depressed, because her life was so far removed from what she was used to.”


A request


Before her illness, Anne was a bubbly and social person, but she had essentially become a recluse. It became so unbearable, that she asked Holly to do something she never expected. “One day, she asked me if I would end her life for her. She implied that I should give her an overdose of morphine and I was shocked. It showed me just how desperate she was to end her suffering and it was ultimately a cry for help,” says Holly.


Holly went on to explain: “I wanted to help her, but not only did I not know how much morphine I’d need to give her, but I didn’t have it in me to do it. When I said that to Mum, she looked a little bit disappointed, but I think she knew deep down I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did. But if an assisted dying law was in place, then that could’ve been the perfect option for Mum.”


Eighteen months after her diagnosis, Anne passed away age 65, with her family by her bedside. “Obviously it was the most heart-breaking thing I’d ever experienced,” Holly explains, “but I felt relieved knowing she wasn’t suffering anymore. That feeling of relief made me feel guilty, but knowing she was in a better place helped me to cope with the grief.”


Holly continues: “If we could’ve orchestrated her death, put her favourite music on for example and done it the way she wanted, I would’ve been more at peace with her death. But instead, Mum went into a coma and every day we were waiting for her to take her last breath. It was horrendous and it took six days for her lungs and body to finally give up.”


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The price of assisted dying


For terminally ill people in the UK, the only other well-known option is to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, where a person can legally have their life ended. A Briton goes there every eight days and 350 British people so far have ended their lives at Dignitas. But the problem is that many terminally ill people aren’t able to get on a plane and many can’t afford the £15,000 price tag of the procedure – a 50% increase in the past five years. For those who are privileged enough to afford to go, they are forced to die alone, because if a loved one travels with them and returns to the UK, they risk prosecution for aiding their suicide. For that person, not being able to be there when their family member passes away, could lead to a lifetime of regret and trauma.


“Even if Mum had wanted to go to Switzerland to end her life, she wouldn’t have physically been able to go,” explains Holly, “let alone afford it. But if assisted dying was an option, she could’ve had a qualified doctor come to her bedside and end her life in a safe, comfortable environment.


“It’s well known that the NHS is under-funded and that goes for palliative care too. It desperately needs more money and staff, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of a safe assisted dying law. For many people, like Mum, even the best palliative care and pain relief doesn’t help their suffering,” she says.


Holly isn’t alone in her experience, because according to Dignity in Dying: “Over half (57%) of people in England and Wales have seen a loved one suffer at the end of life, new research has also found, with four in 10 (42%) believing they would have considered an assisted death had it been a legal option for them in the UK.”


Because of what she has witnessed, Holly would consider going abroad for an assisted death. She says: “After I watched my mum die at home, it made me 100 per cent want to plan my death if I become terminally ill. I would not choose to die at home in this country unless I had a lot of money and a private nurse, but even then, I’d consider going to Switzerland. I don’t want to die the way she did. I want to be in control of my own death.”


With the costs of travelling to Dignitas so high, the option to end your life if you’re terminally ill is only available to the financially well-off. But doesn’t everyone deserve the right, whether they’re rich or poor, to end their lives when they’re in unimaginable pain?


Holly explains: “If Mum could’ve had an assisted death, I think it would’ve curtailed some of my trauma. She didn’t need to suffer like that, but she had no choice in this country.”


So much trauma could be avoided


An assisted dying law would give people that all-important choice and give them control over their own lives. Without it, terminally ill people are being forced to suffer. For the people who are ill, it no doubt leads to terrible mental health and depression-like symptoms, in many cases. But when family members are helplessly forced to watch their loved ones die an agonising death, it is likely to lead to years, and potentially lifelong, mental health issues for them too.


According to Dignity in Dying, “200 million people around the world have legal access to some form of assisted dying. These laws ensure dying people do not have to suffer against their wishes.”


Countries who have legalised assisted dying are paving the way for other countries to follow suit. Until the UK implements its own law, there’s a risk that the number of people suffering with a mental health problem, because of their own terminal illness or a loved one’s, will only get bigger.


For more information on assisted dying laws and to support Dignity in Dying, please go to www.dignityindying.org.uk.

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