“How do we stop physically disabled people from feeling suicidal in the first place?”
This poignant quote comes from a New Statesman column regarding Daniel James’ decision to end his life rather than live it as a tetraplegic. The writer, Victoria Brignell, also a tetraplegic, has an excellent point – the focus shouldn’t be on the ethics behind assisted suicide, but on addressing the the mental and emotional factors that create the urge in the first place.
If you aren’t familiar with James’ story, he was a rugby player for an English team who was paralyzed from the chest down two years ago during a practice session. Only 23, he decided to take his life with the help of a Swiss clinic that practices assisted suicide. His parents chose to assist him after enduring his repeated attempts to end his life. Numerous operations resulted in very limited success, and his parents stated that his depression grew until he couldn’t bear to live anymore.
While Brignell’s article refers to European studies and statistics, it’s well worth reading for the important topics it highlights. We looked up US data on suicide statistics applied to those with spinal cord injuries, and were surprised at how little information there is. Here’s what we found:
- Suicide is the third most common cause of death in those with spinal cord injuries.
- 82% of those injured were males between the age of 16 and 30. (HealthLink)
- “SCI patients experience a suicide rate 4.9 times the age-sex-race specific rate for the general US population for the first five years post injury” (DeVivo 1991).
- Suicide is the first most common cause of death in paraplegic males.
The question is, what resources are available to help encourage a desire to keep living? When someone whose life is based around physical activities like James was, is changed so completely, how can you help them to find alternative ways to enjoy living?
A good place to begin learning how to regain a zest for life is by learning about strategies for coping with a difficult situation. There are centers that were created specifically to help people through difficult times, though we will warn you that they can be pricey, and as another approach, a good therapist will go a long way towards helping someone find a better perspective on life. For spine-specific support, this was one of the only sites we found, but it has some good information.
While there are some excellent therapists out there, keep in mind that if you go this route it will pay off to find someone who has handled cases dealing with disabilities. A therapist who doesn’t have the training won’t be able to address the challenges specific to this type of situation. Call around, ask for referrals, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more detailed your interview, the better chance you have of finding the “right” fit.
Good luck, and keep in mind – there IS support out there, you just have to refuse to give up!