A number of years ago I worked as a spiritual care chaplain in a psychiatric hospital. It was challenging work, in an environment in which there was profound suffering caused by mental illness. I remember the very first patient that I was called to see, a man suffering from depression so profound that he could barely speak. But there was no mistaking what he said to me on that first visit. He asked me if I could help him die. As a newbie on the floor fresh from suicide intervention training, I immediately went to the station to report this. The people there just looked at me and said, “we know.”
It is a common, in fact daily occurrence on these wards for people to ask to be put to death. In my first week, as a newcomer, I received three such requests. All were from people who were depressed, suffering from treatment-resistant depression which was often mixed with multiple forms of mental illness. This was a psychiatric hospital after all. The suffering was profound, and my initial reaction to being in such a place was gloomy. However I soon realized that over the course of weeks, months and in one case a full year, the patients did respond at least in some measure to treatment. Each of the three patients who asked me to assist them to die, eventually became well enough to go home, though none was cured of depression.