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Euthanasia in adults with psychiatric conditions: A descriptive study of the experiences of Belgian psychiatrists

Verhofstadt M, Audenaert K, Van den Broeck K, Deliens L, Mortier F, Titeca K, De Bacquer D, Chambere K. Euthanasia in Adults with Psychiatric Conditions: a Descriptive Study of the Experiences of Belgian Psychiatrists (In review). Science Progress. 2021.

Abstract

To investigate the experience of psychiatrists who completed assessment procedures of euthanasia requests from adults with psychiatric conditions (APC) over the last 12 months. Between November 2018 and April 2019 a cross-sectional survey was sent to a sample of 753 psychiatrists affiliated with Belgian organisations of psychiatrists to gather detailed information on their latest experience with a completed euthanasia assessment procedure, irrespective of its outcome (i.e. euthanasia being performed or not). Information on 46 unique cases revealed that most APC suffered from comorbid psychiatric and/or somatic disorders, and had received different kinds of treatment for many years prior to their euthanasia request. Existential suffering was the main reason for the request. The entire procedure spanned an average of 14 months, and an average of 13.5 months in the 23 cases that culminated in the performance of euthanasia. In all cases, the entire procedure entailed multidisciplinary consultations, including with family and friends. Psychiatrists reported fewer difficulties in assessing due care criteria related to the APC's self-contemplation - for example, unbearable suffering on top of the due care criteria related to their medical condition; incurability due to lack of reasonable treatment perspectives. In a few cases in which euthanasia was the outcome, not all legal criteria were fulfilled in the reporting physicians' opinions. Both positive and negative experiences of the assessment procedure were reported: for example, reduced suicide risk for the APC; an emotional burden and a feeling of being pressured for the psychiatrist. This study confirms that euthanasia assessment in APC entails a lengthy process with diverse complexities, and psychiatrists require support in more than one respect if the assessments are to be handled adequately. Thorough evaluation of current guidelines is recommended: that is, to what extent the guidelines sufficiently address the complexities around (e.g.) assessing legal criteria or involving relatives. We formulate various avenues for further research to build on this study's insights and to fill remaining knowledge gaps.