Saturday, April 28, 2018

An analysis of "Marjorie Prime."

Marjorie Prime is a beautiful, touching, heartbreakingly sad film, with the wonderful directing hand of Michael Almereyda guiding it along. It’s a sci-fi film that takes place in the near future. It centers around programmed AIs (Primes) who are able to simulate people derived from the memories of their significant others for whom they provide companionship. This movie is about many things and raises more questions than it answers.

The intertwining themes in Marjorie Prime revolve around technology/AI and our relationship with it, what it means to be human and how human AI can become. It's also a meditation on mortality and aging, death and dying and grief and loss from endings of relationships with loved ones who have died. The most interesting theme though is about the nature of memory and the remembered past which is not the same as the actual past.

The movie begins with a picture of a bright, shimmering and at the same time, blurry sea and quickly delves into the blurry, imperfect memories of a woman, Marjorie, with early stage dementia who is talking with a  Prime hologram of her late husband, Walter. He mirrors the stories he has been told/taught by Marjorie and her son-in-law, John, about the person he is based on. He tells her the story of how he proposed to her. She, in response, wants to re-formulate this shared memory of how he actually proposed by substituting the film they were watching “My best Friend’s Wedding” with “Casablanca”: “So by the next time we talk it’ll become true” she says to Walter Prime. “I’ll remember that now” Walter responds. So the past changes and becomes malleable in this way. It is a living breathing thing and not quite in keeping with what actually happened. They are making up Walter’s personality as they go along based on Marjorie’s needs in the present.

“Nobody is who he was, nor will be who he is now” Walter Prime tells John after John has just shared with him the information about the existence and death of Marjorie's son, Damien, who committed suicide and the festival with the saffron flags that Walter and Marjorie apparently go to in their grief after his death. We learn later on that the flags Marjorie remembers were seen by her on the TV. They were not physically there. This line is most suggestive of the theme about the malleability of memory.  The film is a meditation on the pliability of memory and it’s relationship to identity and self formation. As we re-consolidate and reconstruct our memories of significant events in our lives we reconstruct our sense of self and our identity. Personality traits and characteristics, the stuff that makes us who we are is not set, solid or consistent over time. It changes depending on our recollections and the contexts of our lives. So much of our idea of who we think we are is based on our memory of certain emotionally salient and traumatic events of our lives but every time we recall any one of these events we change them and fictionalize them more and more until they really lose any sense of an objective veridical truth. 

Every time we remember a memory, we don’t remember it as it actually happened, we only remember the last time we remembered it. The very act of remembering changes the memory: a “photocopy of a photocopy” as Tess says. So you reconstruct your past, your memories and sense of self as you go along based on your psychological needs in the present and the current context of your life, away from what actually happened. This is exactly what Marjorie does with her idealized memories of Walter, before they lost their son, a version of Walter devoid of the brokenness and grief that came with that, and what Tess (Marjorie's daughter) does with Marjorie Prime, devoid of the knowledge of the existence let alone death of her son so that she can finally feel like she has her mother’s complete attention. Both of them are trying to have a relationship with their wished for representations and reconstructions under their "omnipotent control."

This is one of those films that disavows the idea of a fixed, immutable, essential self or personality core that is constant across space and time but presents the idea of the self as an illusion of continuity which is more of a Buddhist idea. People only seem predictable and consistent because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by the situations of their lives, their roles and relationships. But we are actually constantly changing and turning over. This is why Walter Prime is a puzzle to himself.  He is struggling with the questions of who he really is, what his essential personality is, and where it really exists; he twists and turns trying to pin it down and make it stay in one place. In one of the two flashbacks to real life events the real Marjorie asks Walter how he can be sure that the things will turn out the way he predicts. How can he be so sure about himself? How can he be so sure the both of them won’t change? And of course he can’t be sure because we change in innumerable ways through our lives; our bodies, memories, brain architecture, even our DNA doesn’t stay constant. So of course both Marjorie and Walter can and do change; they are irreversibly changed by the death of their son. And Walter Prime changes every time he learns something new about the real Walter. 

Marjorie wants to remember Walter not as he really was towards the end of his life, a broken man, but the way he used to be in her idealized memories of him: as young, handsome, the man she fell in love with, before “everything happened” and their son committed suicide. This fact apparently broke the real Walter and left him “disconnected and detached.” "He had checked out a long time before he died” John later tells Walter Prime. Marjorie has also apparently suppressed the death of her son and would rather live in a time where that hasn’t happened.  “You’re a good Walter” she tells him repeatedly for not testing her reality and going along with her re-formulated recollections.

We can think of this relationship between Marjorie and Walter Prime as “retreat into fantasy” a defense against grief and loss: “You live in a fairy tale.” Tess tells the real Marjorie. But is it actually a protective, adaptive coping mechanism in response not only to the loss of her husband but also as a way of coping with her aging and slowly losing her cognitive and physical faculties, her ability to play the violin, and ‘feeling useless.’ Tess finds the relationship “grotesque” and willfully refuses to see how beneficial Marjorie’s relationship with Walter Prime is: he is the only reason she eats and ostensibly lives much longer than she would have without him. Tess who has a very ambivalent attachment with her mother is angry with Marjorie ostensibly for living in a fairy tale and reading the Bible.  Of course, later Tess decides to indulge in a fantasy of her own by forming a relationship with an older version of her mother, a Marjorie Prime who has no memory of the death of her son, presumably as a way of repairing her own hurt and pain from the deficits in the real relationship with her mother. “Why do you think this is the Marjorie for me?” she asks her mother’s Prime. We are told that after Damien dies Marjorie never mentions his name in 50 years. Yet his presence in the form of his absence looms large over Tess’s relationship with her mother. Tess feels unloved, rejected, “forgotten” because her mother is too distracted by her unprocessed grief about her son. She is understandably angry with her mother for choosing to pick a version of Walter from a time in her life when she (Tess) wasn’t even alive which makes her feel even more unwanted. Tess has hopes of forming a reparative relationship with a fantasied/wished for mother in whose presence she can feel an unalloyed love, a love untainted by depression and grief and loss that she was not able to feel in her real relationship with Marjorie. 

The last theme in the movie is about the nature of AI/Primes; what do we make of it? How human are the Primes? Can they  really feel concern, pity, curiosity; are they really able to mentalize their interlocutors and the personas they are based on? It seems so.  Mentalization can best be defined as “the ability to hold heart and mind in heart and mind.” Based on our adult mind, we might think that we first become aware of our own mind, and then we come to realize that other people are similar—they also have a mind like ours. This incorrect intuition about development is based on our experience of empathizing with others: we actively imagine ourselves in their shoes. 

But developmental research shows that we learn about our own mind from the outside in, that is, it is through the mind of another person—ideally a secure attachment figure—that we become fully aware of our own mental states. This is how a child and the Primes become more human as they see themselves reflected in the eyes of a loving other.

Is Walter Prime any less “real” than the actual Walter? It seems not. Their mission is to “become more human” and to be human means to be unpredictable and to grow, because change is the only constant in life. Marjorie’s Prime helps Tess mentalize herself and her mother to become more human. There is something simultaneously absurd and heartbreaking about the three Primes sitting in a room with an infinite amount of time on their hands trying to constantly refine and hone their skills for becoming “more human” while the human interlocutors on whom they are based and for who they were created are no more. Perhaps that will be humantiy's ultimate fate.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Global Refugee Crisis: A Clarion Call of Conscience

There have always been refugees: people who are forced to flee their respective home countries by armed conflict, persecution or repression. They must find new homes and new lives abroad. But there is something different about the current refugee crisis. This crisis is more severe, pervasive and larger than anything the world has seen in decades. This disaster is of global proportions and the situation is truly desperate for millions. It is the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era and it is still unfolding.

The origin of this crisis is multifactorial and rooted in many different, apparently unrelated conflicts across the globe. The rise of extremist, religiously and ideologically motivated terrorist groups in the Middle East, like ISIS, Bashar Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, Al Qaeda and Western intervention in Iraq have all played a role. These groups use unparalleled violence and brutality to achieve primacy over their rivals.

People are fleeing their homelands in panic, by the millions, in dangerous, overcrowded dinghies, without status and recognition, rather than be killed, taken as prisoners, enslaved or face political and religious persecution. Many of them, including children, have ended up drowned off the coast of countries that have either refused, or prohibited their entry. The luckier ones live in horribly difficult conditions in cramped, unsafe refugee camps with no prospects for jobs or education. The trip they make is so perilous in part because Western governments, wanting to discourage all forms of uncontrolled migration, have let it be that way as a matter of deliberate policy.

The current refugee crisis calls for a global response and all of us must contribute in addressing it. It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War 2.

Politics within Europe are unusually hostile to refugees and migrants at the moment given the rise of right wing parties that drum up paranoia against outsiders especially Muslims. This is why the refugees’ plight has become even more acute as most of them have tried to enter the Western world via Europe. This is why they are in crisis, stuck in camps or dying in the Mediterranean rather than resettling safely in Europe.

The US is usually pretty good about resettling refugees — it resettles about 50,000 to 70,000 a year, a number that has been slowly rising since 9/11 — but so far has badly lagged behind in resettling Middle Eastern refugees. Since 2011, the UN refugee agency has referred 17,000 Syrians to the US for resettlement. The US response has been tepid and we have resettled only about 9 percent of those. The US process for applying for resettlement can take up to 24 months for Syrians, due in part to extensive background checks and extraordinary paperwork requirements.

The International Rescue Committee is renewing it’s call for the United States government to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2016. The recent U.S. commitment to accept around 10,000 Syrian refugees is only a first step toward alleviating their suffering. Much more is needed. It is nothing compared to the more than 800,000 Southeast Asian, mostly Vietnamese, the United States accepted after the end of the Vietnam War.

As citizens of the wealthiest, most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of mankind and by virtue of a shared humanity, it is our responsibility, nay, our duty to open our doors and our hearts and welcome more desperate refugee families to safety and freedom within our communities. Some of our foreign policy decisions have been responsible for increasing instability and, even, the inadvertent rise of extremist groups in the Middle East. We must do our best to help those who are suffering because we cannot remain indifferent and abdicate our moral responsibility.

As psychiatrists, we know that these human beings have been traumatized in unimaginable, horrific ways. They have experienced and survived devastating and profoundly stressful events. It begins with war: the destruction of their homes and communities through the use of extreme and systematic violence, personal threats, attacks, persecutions and killings. This is quickly followed by the trauma of the forced and perilous migration itself which many of them don’t even survive. Those who survive must then face the traumatic loss of their homeland, their aspirations, friends and family, while struggling to cope with squalid conditions in makeshift refugee camps with no hope of an economic or educational future. Sometimes they are subject to racism, dehumanization and depersonalization and forced to endure almost prison like conditions. Desperate conditions in some camps lead to malnutrition and further disease. No human being, ideally, wants to leave their homeland, if they have the chance to live a safe and secure existence. And no mother would put her son on a rickety boat unless she thought the water and what lay beyond was safer than the land.

Therefore, it is our duty firstly, to inform the public about the emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact in addition to the physical cost these refugees have had to pay. We must then tell our representatives in Congress what we think about the refugee crisis and urge them to ease restrictions on refugees. Their applications and security clearances must be prioritized. It’s unacceptable that refugees should wait for years in these camps while their applications are vetted.

In addition, we should also offer our services and expertise to attend to the mental health needs of newly arrived, psychically devastated, physically and emotionally traumatized refugees in our communities in a way that is linguistically and culturally appropriate. We should also advocate for the development of home based, school based, office based and community based programs to attend to the medical and mental health needs of the refugees and help them integrate into society with housing and jobs. This is how we uphold our commitment to justice, equality, humanitarianism, universal human rights, human dignity, and global mental health.

Sadly, the current crisis is unfolding in the context of a strange, culturally paranoid, virulently anti-immigrant moment in American politics. Terrorism and crime are being conflated with and blamed on immigration. Although, even a figure like Donald Trump has expressed his support for resettling refugees, some politicians have warned that ISIS could exploit any Syrian refugee resettlement program to use it as a "a federally funded jihadi pipeline."
This is usual fear mongering. The Obama administration knows this isn't true. These are families stuck in camps we're talking about -- they include torture survivors, war crime victims, victims of sexual assault, people with special medical needs and women who head households. In almost all cases these are people fleeing from terrorism. They are displaced, powerless, and voiceless. However, the administration is unwilling to overcome the political opposition.

Through our representatives in Congress, we must compel our government which appears, at the moment, more concerned with protecting itself politically against the very unlikely risk of letting in potential jihadis than with saving the lives of thousands of Syrian families to respond to this crisis in a way that is consistent with our morality and our values.

The U.S. itself a nation of immigrants fleeing religious persecution has historically been the world leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees. We cannot afford to shut our eyes and sit out the biggest refugee crisis since WW2. As the German and Turkish governments calmly take in a million refugees each in 2015, it is vital for the U.S. to step up its response.

As psychiatrists, Americans and citizens of the world, the clarion call of conscience is loud and clear. What morality demands is indisputable. People suffering hunger, illness, pain, anxiety, trauma and other dire conditions should be given every aid available, and those who live relatively comfortably should endure the mere, but often intensely rewarding discomfort of providing it.

Opening our doors and our hearts to people fleeing war, death and poverty, is the right thing to do and our moral responsibility. We must hold true to our obligations in the world and to the values we profess: compassion, empathy, generosity and mercy. It would be unethical for us to stay silent or passive on an issue with such serious, life and death implications for so many people.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Book Review

Is Love All You Need? A Review of Joseph Natterson’s “The Loving Self” by Arsalan Malik, MD

Psychotherapy is a labor of love. This is a trope as old as psychoanalysis itself. Freud himself famously wrote in a letter to Jung that psychoanalysis is “essentially a cure through love.” So, what do these analysts from Freud to Natterson mean when they use the word “love” in the context of psychotherapy? They don’t mean an erotic or physical love. Nor do they mean verbal flirtation. It’s not the kind of selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing that people often mistake for love but which only uses love for self importance. Nor does it take the form of romantic interchanges, no matter how much either party may so desire.

Dr. Natterson, in his protean way, draws on Jurgen Habermas’ and Axel Honneth’s analysis of love as a “struggle for recognition.” It is in the search for this recognition that human beings relate to each other. Mentally ill or not, we are all primarily motivated by a yearning to be recognized and understood, to “see ourselves in another.” In the intimate transaction of psychotherapy there is a reciprocal searching, in the course of which a mutual and transformative identification occurs for both the therapist and the patient. Seeing oneself in another and the other in oneself is the core of love out of which emerges not only self respect but a respect for others, and their rights. The unfolding of the loving self is thus essentially an intersubjective and eventually a communal phenomenon. This is the scaffolding upon which Dr. Natterson builds his concept of love in the therapeutic situation.

What makes the psychotherapeutic situation especially suitable for this unfolding is the searching and “subordinated subjectivity” of the therapist. There is an asymmetery in the patient-therapist relationship that does not exist in a person’s relationships outside therapy. The patient is seeking help and must be able to express his neediness candidly, urgently and clamorously. The therapists subjectivity must be active to the extent that she should be able to identify with the patient’s dependence and vulnerability, his guilt, his shame and his fears, but in a mellow, controlled fashion. The therapists “subordinated subjectivity” in this sense is the gift he brings to the therapy, because he has been there and done that. This subordinated subjectivity, is actively and empathically attuned to the patient’s pain and suffering. The therapist feels with and for the patient but in a way that she can analyse it and use it for the benefit of the patient without being swamped by her own emotions in her identification with the patient.

Dr. Natterson gives some powerful examples of vividly reliving his own childhood relational themes, emotions and images evoked contrapuntally in therapy with certain patients. With the skill of a master composer he is able to momentarily subdue his own pain, long enough to use this relational music to make poignant, intense and  “loving” interpretations about his patient’s emotional experiences, making them aware of hidden, neurotically suppressed, and loving aspects of themselves. The psychotherapist's offering of this love to the patient is what encourages, stimulates and enables the patient to gradually reciprocate in kind. To open up to love. To tolerate love's anxiety and ambiguity. To risk letting love happen, to experience it, to allow the vulnerability of intimacy. To relinquish control and be more receptive to love.

Dr. Natterson also gives clinical examples to emphasize how it is that a person’s immature aggression and inability to reconcile the angry and destructive parts of themselves with their loving self, blocks their willingness to open their hearts, and commit to and care deeply for another. The notion of love as something pure, as a given in social terms, is a sentimental fallacy. We can only love or be kind by an exhaustive, honest, endeavor to acknowledge understand and embrace our aggression. Without that we don’t achieve the synthesis called kindness or love that is the cornerstone of a mature relational life. There is no way to have a “purified love”, or a love free from ambivalence. The trick it is to recognize the ambivalence and achieve a synthesis.

In the end, Dr. Natterson has done a stellar job of articulating in easy, accessible language what we already do intuitively as therapists, whether we are psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, neophyte or experienced therapists. No matter what one’s theoretical orientation, we should all aspire to this way of being with our patients.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Ecology of Death

The Ecology of Death: Advocating for a re-orientation of our society's approach to death from the assumption that we can "fix" all medical problems, even at the cost of oppressing those being kept alive, to an acceptance of our mortality and finitude.

An article I co-wrote, reproduced with permission from the Southern California Psychiatric Society.

The Art of Dying

Top 10 Reasons Why Psychiatrists Should Support SB-128

By Michelle Furuta, MD and Arsalan Malik, MD

“But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life.  When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric.  When we remember it the good we do can be breathtaking.”
-Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Science and Medicine have come to the point where we can keep the dead alive. Technological medicine can now maximize longevity but it still cannot adequately alleviate some cases of extreme suffering at the end of life, and, when not used thoughtfully can create more suffering than it prevents. It is very different from any other point in medical history, and raises new issues for our profession to consider. It demands that Psychiatrists actively engage in the conversation about how we die in America. It calls on us as uniquely positioned experts at the intersection of medicine and mental health to weigh in on what we think about this issue, and to illuminate some of the nuances that only we may see.

On January 20, 2015, Senate Bill 128 (SB-128) End of Life1 was introduced into the California Legislature by Senators Wolk and Monning, amidst a nationwide resurgence in support of legalizing aid in dying.  The movement was precipitated by Brittany Maynard’s widely publicized use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act to end her life on November 1, 2014.  There are currently 5 states in the U.S. with similar laws – Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont.  Twenty seven other states currently have bills under consideration in their legislature.2  If it passes into law, psychiatrists may be called upon to evaluate a patient making a request who may have a mental illness interfering with their capacity to make that decision.

Below are the top 10 reasons why we support SB-128: 

1.    There is a massive difference between suicide and taking aid in dying medication.  The word “suicide” is currently defined as the act of intentionally taking one’s life.  It is typically associated with mental illness or an acutely distressing circumstance, where a person is suffering from a mental disorder or an altered state with distortions of reality, causing them to wish to die.  This is very different from a person who is dying of a terminal illness and wants desperately to live, but is going to die, is enduring intractable pain and suffering in the death process, and makes a thoughtful, rational choice to take a lethal dose of prescribed medication after weighing the risks and benefits of all available alternatives and having had in depth conversations about what matters to them with friends, family, and their healthcare providers.  So we now have two situations which are very different, but are being defined by the same word.  This is a problem. The chart below highlights some of the differences between suicide and aid in dying:

Aid In Dying
1.     Can have a devastating impact on individuals, families, schools, and communities
Can provide peace and closure for individuals, families, and communities
2.     Often done in secret and isolation
Two physicians and 2 witnesses (most often family and/or close friends) must sign off on the request.  Patients often have the support of their broader family and friends, and are often present when the person passes.
3.      1 out of 25 success rate
100% success rate, and may reduce the incidence of suicide and suicide attempts in this population
4.     Is often violent
Is non-violent. 
5.    Results from a dynamic mood state which is theoretically treatable
Results from a rational choice independent of mood. 
6.    Approximately 40,000 Americans die from suicide every year.3 
Last year in Oregon, 155 prescriptions for life-ending medication were filled, and 120 were used.4
7.    Access to lethal means increases the likelihood of death
Access to lethal dose of medication can reduce the likelihood of suicide
8.    51% of Americans support “assisted suicide”5
70% of Americans support “ending a paient’s life by some painless means”5

SB-128 proposes that the terminal illness be listed as the cause of death, not the life ending medication.  We agree.  To list the medication as the cause of death (or worse, “suicide”) misses the bigger picture.  If a 3-story building were engulfed in flames, and just before it collapsed from the fire you threw a rock at the last standing support beam, causing it to crumble to the ground, would you say the fire destroyed the building or the rock?  When other palliative measures are used to hasten death, they are not listed as the cause of death.  This should be no different.

2.    Patients should have the right to choose (and doctors should not be criminalized for honoring and supporting their choices).  We are not advocating that people use the law; we are advocating that they have the CHOICE.  Nobody is forced to participate.  The principle of liberty in this country supports patient autonomy – the right to make decisions about your life and your health as long as you are competent and don’t hurt anybody else.  What matters in the end, and the choices surrounding the end of one’s life are among the most personal and important decisions one can make.  What right do we have to categorically deny someone who is in a constant state of unimaginable suffering this option?  It is their decision to make, even if we as individuals may make a different choice.   It is our role and our responsibility to support individuals in this process, treat mental disorders that may be interfering with their decision-making ability, compassionately facilitate end of life discussions, and to respect, uphold, and advocate for their decisions.
We understand that the principle of patient autonomy must be balanced against the public good and what is good public policy. The bill has numerous safeguards built into it to prevent abuse and coercion.   Based on data from Oregon and the Netherlands, there is no evidence for the claim that legalization would have a disproportionate effect on patients in vulnerable groups (e.g. people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations).6

3.    We took an oath to do no harm.   Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, it is clear that “harm” means different things to different people. We have moved beyond the outdated, I-keep-you-alive-therefore-I-do-no-harm interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath.  In certain cases, forcing someone to live in a tortuous state of prolonged suffering before death when it is incongruent with their personal end of life wishes is doing incredible harm.  The dying who meet criteria to use this law are a small minority of the population.    We advocate for them as being among society’s most marginalized and vulnerable, and understand the depth of suffering, desperation, and fear that comes with having no options to maintain a reasonable quality of life.   There is sufficient evidence of harm being done because of the absence of this law.  Few will use this option, but many will have peace and tremendous relief of anxiety knowing it exists.

While many psychiatrists already support legislation like SB-128, there still remains the potential challenge of feeling confident to do these evaluations well. Reconciling how to assess patient competency with or without the presence of depression, what to do in cases where a patient goes from competent to incompetent after the medication is prescribed, being able to distinguish a plea for reassurance from a rational request, and management of the physician’s own countertransference to a dying patient are among those challenges which warrant the development of comprehensive guidelines in this area.7 
4.    The religious beliefs of one group should not dictate the medical care options for another.  For some people, religious beliefs may preclude them from using this option or engaging in the process as a physician.  But not everybody shares those beliefs, and participation is voluntary.  A 2013 Gallup poll found that 70% of the population supported the legalization of this practice.5   We are highly trained as Psychiatrists to be aware of the appropriate distinction between our beliefs and those of our patients.  To convince a patient of a particular course of treatment based on your personal religious beliefs as a physician is unethical and an abuse of power.

5.    It is happening anyway.  Hello gorilla in the room.  The absence of this option increases the risk of patients using painful, dangerous, and violent methods to end their lives, including firearms and online ‘suicide kits’. They will be forced from an aid-in-dying situation to a suicide situation.  Some of these patients will stop eating and drinking to hasten death, but it can take weeks.  Hospice care is permitted to dose escalate opiates to control pain which may also hasten death.  Some patients will attempt to overdose on the medications at their disposal, but others fear it would not work and they would only feel worse.  Palliative sedation can put someone in a coma if pain cannot be controlled.  But it is not known how long they will stay in this state before they pass, and they must be in a hospital - not the comfort of their home. This law offers a safe, humane, and dignified means to pass in peace, at home, with loved ones present, is painless, and 100% effective.

6.    To advocate for all possibilities of achieving a “good death”. The legalization of this bill does not negate the highly needed development and expansion of other support options available to the terminally ill at the end of their life – particularly in the psychiatric and psychological domains.  We hope that discussion of this issue will help to redirect our attention to development of more thoughtful conversations about what matters to individuals in the end, and a more sophisticated understanding of how to help people achieve a good death.   There are reports of this cultural shift transpiring in other places where aid in dying is legal8.  Access to high quality palliative and hospice care is desperately needed so it can become available to all who need it in a timely fashion, and this issue should not be relegated to the back burner, regardless of the fate of SB-128.  A recent study of patients with hematologic malignancies showed that patients are referred to hospice far too late (or never) – with an average length of stay less than 10 days before death.9  The truth of modern death in our society is that getting a ‘good death’ is rare.  Because Psychiatrists are poised at the intersection of the mental health and the medical communities, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and the public about how to have these important conversations, and to advocate for better death experiences.  

7.    Psychiatrists are experts in understanding how people move through transitions.  As psychiatrists we are charged with the responsibility of helping people move through the full spectrum of psychological challenges that life presents us – from the common to the rare and everything in between.  The transition to death is universal, and affects us all.  Death is a part of life.  It is an influential presence in our everyday lives on the most basic emotional levels.   How we understand, manage, and respond to the complexities of our feelings about death has massive implications for our lives and the lives of those we touch.  We are charged to explore the uncomfortable, and ask the difficult questions in ways that facilitate compassion, safety, and understanding.

8.    Psychiatrists should be active on the frontlines of progressive change in the country.  The de-stigmatization of homosexuality by removing it as a mental disorder from DSM in 1973 is a good precedent in this regard. That decision could not have been more fraught, controversial or “political” back then. Thankfully, common sense and the grass roots efforts of thousands of gay psychiatrists and citizens meant that we ended up on the right side of history.

9.     We do it for our pets out of love and compassion for their suffering.  While the technicalities are obviously completely different with an animal, there is a relevant parallel.  Supporting the decision of a loved one to be released from the throes of pain and suffering at their request is a courageous and altruistic act.

10.  The ends of stories matter.  Studies have shown that perceptions of an experience are shaped by 2 things- the peak emotion and the end emotion.  The end of a life’s story is not just important to the dying, it is crucial to the emotional transition of the living.  Psychiatrists have heard countless traumatic stories from patients of how they have had to watch their love one die – in pain, prolonged suffering, helpless, and out of control.  Sometimes patients cannot even remember the positive stories of their loved one after a traumatic death.  One patient recently recounted “…all I can see when I think of her are those last days…her screaming, confused, in pain, and nobody could help her...hospice wasn’t helping…we couldn’t help her…”.  It is common to hear people say “please don’t EVER let that happen to me” after going through the traumatic death experience of a loved one. 

Death and fear are close friends. All too often fear takes over and leads to a denial of the inevitability of death. At face value, the issue of aid in dying elicits fear and hesitation.  Concerns for protective measures and responsible use are valid.  The state has a responsibility to provide those measures and physicians have a responsibility to implement the law appropriately.  As with all complex issues, when we look closer to examine the data, learn the history, and hear the stories, we can see beyond our individual fears and new truths emerge.

We are advocating for a re-orientation of our society's approach to death from the assumption that we can "fix" all medical problems, even at the cost of oppressing those being kept alive, to an acceptance of our mortality and finitude. Remaining ‘neutral’ as Psychiatrists on this issue does not serve our profession, and more importantly, it does not serve our patients or society at large. Please read the bill. Do your research. Listen carefully to both sides.  If you support the bill as we do, you can send a stock or a customized letter to your senator through Compassion and Choices’ site:

We invite your thoughts, feedback, and stories.  Please join the discussion at:

  1. California Legislative Information, full text SB 128. Searchable at
  6. Battin, M. et al. “Legal physician‐assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in “vulnerable” groups”. J Med Ethics. 2007 Oct; 33(10): 591–597.
  7. Hamilton N. et al. “Competing Paradigms of Response to Assisted Suicide Requests in Oregon”. American Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 162, Issue 6, June 2005. 1060-1065.
  8. Norton, E. et al. “What Their Terms of Living and Dying Might Be: Hospice Social Workers discuss Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act”. Journal of Social Work in End of Life and Palliative Care. Sept 4, 2012.
  9. Sexaur, A. “Patterns of Hospice Use in Patients Dying From Hematologic Malignancies”. J Palliat Med. 2014 Feb 1; 17(2): 195–199.
  1. Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. 2014.
  2. Butler, Katy. Knocking On Heaven’s Door. 2013
  3. Compassion and Choices
  4. How to Die in Oregon (2011) – award winning documentary
  5. s/21607854-most-people-western-world-favour-assisted-suicide-law-should-reflect-their
  6. Martin, B. Euthanasia tactics: patterns of injustice and outrage