Why are people with mental illness excluded from the rational suicide debate?

Int J Law Psychiatry. 2013 Sep-Dec;36(5-6):358-65. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2013.06.006. Epub 2013 Jul 7.


The topic of rational suicide is often approached with some trepidation by mental health professionals. Suicide prevention strategies are more likely to be seen as the domain of psychiatry and a wealth of psychiatric literature is devoted to identifying and managing suicide risk. Whether or not suicide can be deemed permissible is ostensibly linked to discussions of autonomy and mental capacity, and UK legislation directs that a patient's wishes must be respected with regard to treatment refusal where decisional capacity is intact. In the context of the care and treatment of those with physical disorders, extreme and untreatable physical suffering is likely to be accepted as rational grounds for suicide, where the person possesses cognitive coherence and an ability to realistically appreciate the consequences of his or her actions. In the case of those with serious mental disorder, the grounds for accepting that suicide is rational are however less clear-cut. Serious mental illness is typically conceived of as a coercive pressure which prevents rational deliberation and as such, the suicides of those with serious mental illness are considered to be substantially non-voluntary acts arising from constitutive irrationality. Therefore, where an appropriate clinician judges that a person with serious mental disorder is non-autonomous, suicide prevention is likely to be thought legally and morally justified. There are arguably, two questionable assumptions in the position that psychiatry adopts: Firstly, that psychogenic pain is in some way less real than physical pain and secondly, that mental illness invariably means that a desire to die is irrational and inauthentic. If it can be shown that some people with serious mental illness can be rational with regard to suicide and that psychological pain is of equal significance as physical suffering, then it may be possible to conclude that some persons with serious mental illness should not by definition be excluded from the class of those for whom rational suicide may be a coherent choice.

Keywords: Autonomy; Mental illness; Rational suicide; Suffering.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Mental Health Services / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Quality of Life
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Suicide Prevention*
  • Suicide* / psychology
  • United Kingdom