Can a terminally ill person want to hasten death and be mentally competent?

New Research Raises Questions About Assessing the Mental State of the Terminally Ill

(WASHINGTON) --- In 1994, Oregon passed a referendum (the Oregon Death With Dignity Act) which specified that a physician may prescribe lethal medication for the purpose of hastening the death of a terminally ill person. The Act survived numerous legal challenges and became state law in October of 1997. To address concerns that many terminally ill people may also suffer from a psychiatric disorder, such as depression, the Act bars suicide assistance to any person who, in the judgement of the attending physician, may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder which may impair judgement.

With this legislation, psychologists and psychiatrists were called upon to determine a physically ill person's mental state, and in doing so were asked to judge their competency to request a hastened death. To ascertain how psychologists felt about this role and to study the practical problems in making such judgements, psychologist Darien S. Fenn, Ph.D., of the Oregon Health Sciences University, and psychiatrist Linda Ganzini, M.D., of the Portland Area Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Oregon Health Sciences University, surveyed 625 licensed psychologists in the state. The survey findings are published in the June issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, published by the American Psychological Association.

According to the research, Oregon psychologists have varying degrees of comfort with suicide and assisted suicide, which the survey data suggest, may be influencing their choice to work or not to work in the area of hasten death requests. While a surprising large percentage of respondents (82%) said they would consider assisted suicide for themselves under certain circumstances, for other respondents, opposition to assisted suicide was strongly a function of their opposition to suicide per se.

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Contact: Rhea Farberman
American Psychological Association

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