You can read his heart-wrenching suicide note here.
You know my take on suicide: it’s not a wish to be dead, it’s a wish for the pain to recede and not seeing any other viable way of making that happen. Bill Zeller was an exact embodiment of this mindset. He believed he had exhausted his options and was simply spent from the psychological pain he endured for over two decades.
A few thoughts: Mr. Zeller made reference to the mental health system failing him. While many clients unfairly put blame on their providers – whether that be to unreasonable expectations, a misunderstanding of a therapist’s take on a particular issue or even a belief that therapists can’t ever make a mistake – I could easily see his complaints being valid. His letter reads as if his experience and pain were never validated, that he was never told about the plenitude of anti-depressants available, that psychological treatments such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy were viable options to treat him or even what suicidal thoughts and feelings actually mean. And, although he was misguided on his beliefs about confidentiality and reporting of crimes as an adult, it’s not a stretch to think that a number of providers missed the boat on what was happening with Bill. A good diagnostician would be unlikely to do this.
Does Bill have the right to die? My profession doesn’t allow Psychologists to let this occur under their watch. Personally, though, the answer is an equivocal yes.
Shrinks are in both a legal and ethical predicament regarding suicide. We are required, by the law and our field’s code, to report imminent danger to self. This is based, at least in part, on the notion that we simply do not know how someone will feel in a week or a month or a year, with or without treatment. Mr. Zeller never really received adequate treatment so we cannot say with certainty that he would not have improved. Granted, depression can be a chronic, recurring illness, but there have been many people who have recovered. We can’t claim that Mr. Zeller would not have been among those fortunate people. In other words, absolute prognosis in mental health is virtually impossible.
Compare this to patients with terminal illnesses, or those with intense pain that doctors can provide very detailed and accurate accounts about prognosis. There’s no hope. It is in these cases that the right to die takes on a new stripe, because we can reasonably expect a certain outcome. You just don’t get that in mental health, which makes it such a fascinating yet frustrating field of study.
If your life, cognitions or emotions seem anything like the words Mr. Zeller wrote, please don’t take them as gospel as it applies to your future. Don’t give up. Maybe Mr. Zeller would never have improved, but we just don’t know. Independent of blame, he never got a viable chance to conquer the darkness to which he refers. Don’t be him in that regard. You might just be one of the many I’ve seen who got through it.