A recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found a significant rise in euthanasia in Belgium. The study also revealed an increase in cases involving people with mental illness. Belgium ranks 34th in world suicide rates by country (WHO, 2012), and 4th among EU states (OECD, 2012). Most of these cases are linked to psychological suffering.
In Road to Mercy, we meet Amy de Schutter, a 29-year-old Belgian woman who has struggled with mental illness for half her life. After six diagnoses and years of treatment, nothing has relieved her psychological pain. Over the years she has tried to relieve her suffering through self-harm and has attempted suicide several times. She tells her psychiatrist and family she has lost the will to fight; she would like euthanasia.
“I am just literally exhausted … Half of my life I’ve been fighting and battling to be able to be happy as my friends. To have some quality of life. To not wake up every night or at least many nights with nightmares. To not always have those thoughts.”
Amy’s mother struggled with her daughter’s decision. Vera Bulthé describes Amy as “a very spontaneous, cheerful, happy child”, but that all changed once Amy hit puberty. Vera initially thought it was hormones, then noticed how withdrawn her daughter had become. Once Amy started self-mutilating, her mother knew it was much more serious than teenage angst. Amy ended up spending her adolescence in psychiatric institutions.
Amy experienced some reprieve in early adulthood. She went to university where she majored in physics and was head of her sorority. In that time she also had an active social life. However, she soon relapsed.
When Amy shared her desire for euthanasia, her mother was distraught: “In the beginning I was in a sort of depression, I couldn’t go to work for a week”. After taking some time to reflect, Vera's views slowly evolved: “I found it very sweet of my daughter, that by requesting euthanasia, she is giving us the time to first get used to the idea. Second to think about it. Three to ask questions. Four the farewell."
Amy’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lieve Thienpont works at Vonkel, an organization in Ghent, Belgium that deals specifically with patients' end of life questions. Dr. Thienpont, author of Libera Me, specializes in assessing euthanasia requests for psychological suffering.
Under Belgian law Amy needs the permission of three doctors: a referring doctor, a psychiatrist, and one other doctor. Amy's family doctor has agreed to carry out her request, if she receives the necessary approvals. Dr. Thienpont understands Amy’s desire but wants her to take more time before making a final decision.
“In cases of euthanasia, we must be sure that the patient is taking a decision over a long period, where [s]he’s balancing the pros and cons - not an impulsive moment, because we know that the wish to die is often a symptom.”
Although Amy understands Dr. Thienpont’s hesitation, she expresses frustration over the long wait. She also doesn’t want the pain of dying by suicide. Her last attempt, just one month ago, took a toll on her friends and family. In the video clip below, Amy explains to her mother why she made the euthanasia request.
Watch Road to Mercy October 6th at 9 pm EST on the CBC series Firsthand for more of Amy’s story.