Objective: Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have become prominent medical and social issues. This study investigated the prevalence of the desire for death in terminally ill patients, the stability of this desire over time, and its association with psychiatric disorders.
Method: Two hundred terminally ill inpatients were given semistructured interviews that assessed their desire for death and evaluated them for major and minor depressive episodes according to the Research Diagnostic Criteria. Each patient also completed a short form of the Beck Depression Inventory and provided ratings of pain and social support. When possible, patients who expressed a desire for death received a follow-up interview after a 2-week interval.
Results: Although occasional wishes that death would come soon were common (reported by 44.5% of the patients), only 17 (8.5%) of these individuals acknowledged a serious and pervasive desire to die. The desire for death was correlated with ratings of pain and low family support but most significantly with measures of depression. The prevalence of diagnosed depressive syndromes was 58.8% among patients with a desire to die and 7.7% among patients without such a desire. Follow-up interviews were conducted with six patients; in four cases, the desire to die had decreased during the 2-week interval.
Conclusions: The desire for death in terminally ill patients is closely associated with clinical depression--a potentially treatable condition--and can also decrease over time. Informed debate about euthanasia should recognize the importance of psychiatric considerations, as well as the inherent transience of many patients' expressed desire to die.