Bell Let’s Talk Day: Preventing – not Assisting – Suicide for Those with Mental Illness
Every January, Canadians participate in Bell Let’s Talk Day. This day seeks to combat the stigma that surrounds mental illness and is an important recognition of the need for accessible mental health support. It’s an opportunity for Canadians who are struggling with their mental health to be seen and heard. It’s an opportunity for others to listen, learn, and care. As a recent Bell Let’s Talk video puts it, “Keep being there. Keep listening.”
Mental illness affects a wide cross-section of Canadians. By age 40, 50% of Canadians have, or have had, a mental illness. Mental health supports for adults, youth, and children have rightly become a major conversation point in Canada. We have seen real progress in improving openness and reducing the stigma around mental illness.
Suicide prevention is a critical part of supporting mental health. Last summer, the roads to our Ottawa office were blocked for the better portion of a day because a person threatened to jump off one of the nearby buildings. The response and resources provided by local emergency services to help this person were appropriate and necessary – it is right to put significant effort into preventing suicide and offering real help for those who are struggling.
But at the same time, Parliament passed laws that will harm those who suffer from mental illness. Although our government says they prioritize mental health supports, they will soon allow Canadians who suffer from mental illness to end their life through medical assistance in dying (also referred to as MAiD, euthanasia, or assisted suicide). This provision, included in Bill C-7, will come into effect on March 17, 2023.
How can we advocate for mental health support for those suffering from mental illness while at the same time assisting suicide for the very same people? Clearly, there is a huge inconsistency here.
In March 2021, a video circulated of a young woman describing her struggle with mental illness and her sadness about the proposed expansion of euthanasia to people like her. She said, “As someone who struggles with mental illness, I don’t need someone to tell me how to die. I need someone to tell me to stay.”
Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying law wrongly normalizes suicide as a solution for suffering. Offering suicide to those who are struggling with mental illness tells them that their life is not as valuable as the lives of Canadians who do not struggle in the same way. We cannot make real efforts at suicide prevention while offering assisted suicide as a solution for mental illness.
Just last month, a committee of the National Assembly of Quebec studied the issue and advised against expanding MAiD to those with mental illness. In their report, they state that our society needs to offer suicide prevention to those who need it, and they share the concern that expanding MAiD into the area of mental illness could undermine such efforts by telling those with mental illness that death is a legitimate option for them.
Parliament still has time to repeal the clause to expand MAiD eligibility to those with mental illness. Since the Senate added this clause without debate by the House of Commons and without time to gather expert testimony or do a committee study, the clause provided time – until March 17, 2023 – for the government to study the issue of MAiD for people with mental illness before the clause comes into effect. Our leaders have time to right this wrong, and they need to be called on to do so.
We have one year to make our voices heard on this. We need to encourage MPs to introduce bills or motions to debate, discuss, and delete the section of law allowing for the expansion of medically assisted death to those with mental illness. Canada should focus on increasing mental health supports and improving access to those supports instead of offering MAiD, not alongside MAiD. Those who are struggling need help, not MAiD, and our government needs to hear that loud and clear.
Bell Let’s Talk Day is a powerful initiative that has been a force changing the way mental illness is perceived in Canada. Let’s keep that momentum going: all year long, let’s talk about mental illness. Let’s talk about supporting those who are struggling and about access to care. Let’s talk about listening to and reaching out to those who need someone to tell them to stay. Let’s talk about changing the law so that all Canadians, including doctors, will be united in telling those who are struggling with mental illness, we want you to stay.