Is Suicide Justified?

Dear Doctor David,

I read your book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, with much interest. I think almost all what you say still applies today. But I have a question: in the book when you discuss suicide, you don’t mention physical pain as a reason.

I understand your belief that most, if not all, suicidal patients can be helped. But pain is not even listed in your index or table of contents. It seems like a strange omission to me.

So, do you think if one has enough incurable physical pain, it’s okay to commit suicide? I am not asking for personal help. This is just a general question.


Dr. Burns’ Response

I have fairly strong feelings on this subject, and all I can give you is my own personal take on it. I know it is complex and highly controversial. And in addition, each situation would have to be evaluated on its own merit. So my comments will be of a general nature only, and are not intended to be medical advice or recommendation.

When our beloved pets are in pain and dying, it is an act of love and mercy to let them go, rather than to make them suffer so horribly. I used to be a dog person, but my wife converted me to cats when our dog died of colon cancer a number of years ago. Now I am crazy about our cats, all of which are strays or rejected cats we adopted. I totally adore them, and you can read about one of them, Obie, on this website.

I have always told my cats that if they are old and suffering, I will not let them suffer. I have also told them that when they die, I will be there with them, giving them love and comfort to the very end.

Personally, I can’t see why we don’t treat our human loved ones with the same degree of mercy and compassion. Personally, I can’t see any merit at all in making a loved one suffer in agony. I don’t mean to inflict my views on anyone, and accept the fact that many people will have radically different and very strong views about this.

The situation of a loved one suffering in agony with a terminal illness is very different from individuals who are depressed or angry and wanting to commit suicide because of the distorted and unrealistic belief that they are hopeless, or in order to get revenge on others who they are angry with, perhaps because they feel rejected. I see suicide for emotional reasons as very violent and horrific act that is never justified or necessary. Once again, I realize and accept the fact that many others will have very different views on this topic.

That’s my take on it. Should I publish your excellent question and my answer on the website? Perhaps some others may be interested in this topic.

David Burns, MD

Dave’s Response to Dr. Burns

Dr. Burns,

I am delighted to get a response from you, particularly the response I was hoping for. Thank you so much for taking the time and making the effort to clarify your position for me.

Yes, after reading your book, I understood that for mental reasons, it’s seldom if ever rational to commit suicide. I was just wondering about the physical pain part.

Yes, by all means if you wish to post my question and your answer on your website, please do so. Good to know that you’re still actively involved in life. Good for you! Thanks again, Dr. Burns, for your answer!