Physician Assisted Suicide’s Appeal to MS Patients in Unbearable Pain Highlights Urgency in Treating Depression

Physician Assisted Suicide’s Appeal to MS Patients in Unbearable Pain Highlights Urgency in Treating Depression

Half of the more than 7,500 multiple sclerosis (MS) patients responding to a recent survey revealed they’d consider physician-assisted suicide if they could no longer enjoy anything that made life worth living. In addition, 65 percent of respondents said they’d definitely or probably let a physician terminate their lives if they were suffering unbearable pain.

Considering that depression goes hand in hand with MS, the findings underscore the importance of a vigilant, pro-active approach to diagnosing and treating depression among MS patients.

The study, “High hypothetical interest in physician-assisted death in multiple sclerosis,” appeared in the journal Neurology. Its authors emphasized that those who responded to their survey did not represent the entire MS community, indicating that numbers might have looked different if a larger proportion of younger, non-white people had participated.

Researchers sent out 10,791 survey requests to patients in the global MS registry NARCOMS. Of the 7,534 people who replied, 79.8 percent were women and 92.9 percent were of European descent. Their average age was 59.9 years.

The survey — a collaboration between Canada’s University of Manitoba and the University of Alabama at Birmingham — asked participants to consider five theoretical situations, and rate whether they definitely would consider, probably would consider, probably would not consider, or definitely would not consider physician-assisted suicide in each situation.

The five circumstances were: experiencing unbearable pain, causing a financial burden to caregivers, feeling extreme emotional distress, lacking the ability to do things that make one happy, and lacking the ability to enjoy anything that makes one’s life worth living. Participants did not have to answer all questions.

Respondents who were more religious and those with more social support were least likely to consider physician-assisted suicide. Yet depression, either ongoing or in the past, made that option more likely. Moderate and severe pain also made the idea of physician-assisted suicide more appealing.

Physician-assisted death, which is the legal term for when a doctor provides lethal means for a patient to end his or her life, is currently legal in only five U.S. states — California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — as well as Washington, D.C. But little research exists on attitudes toward the practice among patients with various chronic diseases.

The study notes that since depression is particularly common in people with MS, it’s important to diagnose and treat depression among these patients. Relieving pain and improving quality of life could potentially have lifesaving effects, said researchers — though they urged more studies to assess views on physician-assisted suicide among patients who were underrepresented in the survey.

The National MS Society underscored in a news release that studies of this kind would not be possible without large patient registries. It urged patients to join NARCOMS and the patient-powered research network iConquerMS.

Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the neurological disease. MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly equaled physician-assisted suicide to euthanasia.


  1. Micah Bales says:

    Just a note on terminology. Physician-assisted suicide and Euthanasia are distinct terms. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in several US states. Euthanasia is not legal anywhere in the United States.

    • Persephone says:

      Thanks for making that good point, though the correct word is physician asssisted-dying. Suicide is something else.

      • Jordan says:

        Suicide is taking your own life. It’s a pretty correct term actually. Euthanasia is also practiced in the US in the cases of coma patients, etc. When it is not the person deciding it, it is Euthanasia. Despite sugar coating it, like “pulling the plug”

  2. Paula Hardin says:

    The exclusion of MSers from being able to access physician-assisted suicide even in states where it is legal is a travesty.

    Just because the medical field can’t determine a probable timeline for death from MS symptoms like they can for cancer is not an acceptable basis for denial.

    Choosing a peaceful, easy, GUARANTTED death over unbearable life can be a rational decision.

    Unless someone has experience being unable to urinate, eat, walk, and see, no one else has the right to judge. To criminalize either doctor or patient for recognizing that quality of life for many is more important than length of life.

  3. Tess says:

    Thank you, Paula. It’s about time somebody offers a truthful and rational viewpoint on the subject of death & dying.

    I’m so tired of hearing high-handed platitudes of people who are (presumably) healthy in body and mind. They only push their own moral agenda (ego) on to to those of us who are unwell and suffering from illness and the poverty it brings.

    They wouldn’t want their pets to suffer this way…but I guess it’s okay for complete strangers to.

    Insensitive & deeply inhumane. This is the country we live in.

  4. ECE says:

    People who think suicidal thoughts in MS sufferers is treatable depression run amuck. It is not. Such thoughts and desires are completely reasonable for those of us in intractable pain, who have no bowel function, no bladder control, have lost major amounts of cognitive function, and cannot walk or even turn over in bed.

    • Tonya says:

      I agree so much! It infuriates me when someone says, your just depressed, you need to cheer up. Sick of it. And drs are all too willing to give you pills to wake your up, perk you up, make you sleep….sick and damn tired of the hypocrisy! Continual pain is not depressive…it’s debilitating! I didn’t get MS because I was depressed….depression is not in my diagnosis and doesn’t make me shit my pants or cause my muscles and joints to ache and spasm. I think you MS doctors need to stop playing god by trying to prolong unneeded suffering. Do your research, and mind your damn business when it come to MY HEALTH CARE!

  5. Kristi jones says:

    I too have become total disabled this year and I been sick for awhile but now cant do anything they shovel meds down my throat and talk about me being ungrateful but I got rushed in emergency surgery where they took my guts out added a bag and tells me to thank the doctors they should have let me die to me they it’s not my best interest some doctor wanted to be a hero now I cant keep insurance and get thrown in a life I cant be active I have to watch others around me no pill will ever make me think they did the right thing they screwed me every day I wake up to relive the nightmare they stuck me in

  6. MS sufferer says:

    its depression from physical pain if you fix the pain the depression will go away
    we dont have a mental problem because we suffer physically i really dont understand how a psychologist can help

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