Bioethics Blogs

Mental Illness and Access to Assisted Dying

Ryan Tanner responds to objections to allowing medical assistance in dying for persons suffering from mental illness as the sole underlying medical condition.


An independent review of medical assistance in dying is soon to begin under the auspices of the Council of Canadian Academies. A subject of further study and, one that remains fiercely debated, is whether medical assistance in dying should be permitted for persons whose sole underlying medical condition is mental illness. Let’s explore some of the objections to allowing medical assistance in dying for persons with mental illness.

A first objection rests on the observation that mental illness is not characteristically terminal, so there is potential for indefinite treatment. Even mental illness that causes long-term unbearable suffering radically contrasts with terminal physical illness in its potential to be cured or its symptoms relieved. Because mental illness has this more ‘remediable’ character, some believe that access to assisted dying should be restricted for those suffering only from a mental illness.

Sorrowing old man (“At Eternity’s Gate”) by Vincent van Gogh (1890)

In response, we should not assume that mental illness is remediable just because it is not terminal. No matter how many attempts at treatment are undertaken, an individual’s suffering may continue. In those rare cases where many treatments have been tried and all have failed, it is unreasonable to require that people continue to endure unbearable suffering while they wait for a successful treatment they have little reason to think will be developed. The mere possibility that a remedy could be developed should not foreclose the possibility of an assisted death once a person determines they are suffering unbearably.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.