When unbearable suffering incites psychiatric patients to request euthanasia: qualitative study†

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Abstract

Background

The concept of ‘unbearable suffering’ is central to legislation governing whether euthanasia requests may be granted, but remains insufficiently understood, especially in relation to psychiatric patients.

Aims

To provide insights into the suffering experiences of psychiatric patients who have made a request for euthanasia.

Method

Testimonials from 26 psychiatric patients who requested euthanasia were analysed using QualiCoder software.

Results

Five domains of suffering were identified: medical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal and existential. Hopelessness was confirmed to be an important contributor. The lengthy process of applying for euthanasia was a cause of suffering and added to experienced hopelessness, whereas encountering physicians who took requests seriously could offer new perspectives on treatment.

Conclusions

The development of measurement instruments to assess the nature and extent of suffering as experienced by psychiatric patients could help both patients and physicians to better navigate the complicated and sensitive process of evaluating requests in a humane and competent way. Some correlates of suffering (such as low income) indicate the need for a broad medical, societal and political debate on how to reduce the burden of financial and socioeconomic difficulties and inequalities in order to reduce patients' desire for euthanasia. Euthanasia should never be seen (or used) as a means of resolving societal failures.

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