Euthanasia and suicide. What is the difference?

What is the difference between euthanasia and suicide? Could teenagers find justification for their own suicide if euthanasia was legalised?

Euthanasia is a specific sort of suicide. It is a choice made by someone who is terminally ill and usually in great pain. At this point, Euthanasia in Australia is illegal. In 1995 it was legalised in the Northern Territory but this only lasted a year because it was challenged by the Federal Government in the High Court and the Federal Government won.

Most people think there is a huge difference between euthanasia and suicide, but is this true?

Suicidal people are in great pain and they think their pain will last forever. They are seriously depressed and cannot see a solution to their pain or problems. Their pain is not usually caused by a physical ailment but psychological desperation. It is very subjective. What is a minor setback for some, can be a devastating crisis for others. Nevertheless is felt physically.

Psychological pain manifests physically. If you watch someone who is bereaved, for example, you will see him or her experience the most terrible pain in their chest. It is called heartache. Anxiety, a psychological condition, is felt physically. Most anxiety attack sufferers have been to the hospital, at least once, believing they are having a heart attack – the pain is that bad.

Teenagers considering suicide are also in terrible pain and that pain is felt physically. They may not be very good at articulating how they feel but some will tell you they are in so much pain, they just want to die.

There is one major difference between people who desire euthanasia and a suicidal teenager. The former is approaching the end of their life and the other is approaching adulthood.

The elderly and teenagers have a number of things in common. Both are in transitional phases of their life. Both often feel powerless. The challenges these periods pose in their lives, if overcome, can make them psychologically strong. This is not just true of those who have their life ahead of them. The terminally ill who overcome their fears, usually die peacefully.

Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, crippled and in pain, hoped for many years that her life would soon end. This woman who literally watched thousands of people die, did not believe in euthanasia. She saw her painful end as teaching her one final quality, patience. In her painful deterioration, she found meaning.

Finding meaning in suffering is the key to preventing the desire for euthanasia and the desire for suicide.

Concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, discovered that people can tolerate the most horrendous suffering if they can find meaning in that suffering. Today, however, we tend to view suffering as something to avoid, not something to learn from.

In our modern world, finding a meaning for our lives that is deeper than the accumulation of material possessions, is fairly rare. Consider the reaction of people faced with financial ruin. Many of them contemplate suicide, and some follow through. In most cases, these people are middle-aged. Having lost everything they’ve worked for over twenty years, they find the pain too great to bear.

These suicides send a strong message to teenagers. They send the message that death is preferable to bankruptcy. They send the message that we are the sum of our accumulated wealth, and little more. And they send the message that hard work is futile. How depressing for a teenager, struggling to come to terms with all the responsibilities of adulthood!

For as long as our society regards suffering as meaningless, people will seek to avoid it. In fact, many of us believe that society as a whole has an obligation to keep us from suffering. Teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly feel the same. In a litigious, risk-adverse culture, suicide is the ultimate form of avoidance.

Our population is aging. The euthanasia debate is not going to go away. In a society that rewards physical and economic power, our elderly are afraid of feeling vulnerable. They are afraid of feeling powerless and they are afraid of dying painfully. And, if we are honest, we will realise that our empathy for them comes from our own fear of suffering. Fear fuels support for euthanasia.

If the elderly and those struggling with major setbacks don’t have the fortitude and the inner calm to overcome their fears and face what life dishes up, how can we expect our despairing youth to do so?