Since the onset of the economic recession, rates of student homelessness have increased rapidly in urban, suburban, and rural school districts throughout the United States. Despite the widespread urgency of the issue, there is a lack of general coherence in the research about how diverse conditions of homelessness affect students and how schools and communities can best serve them. This literature review attempts to deepen scholars’ understandings of such matters by examining (a) homeless students’ school experience in comparison to that of other students, (b) federal policy’s shaping of homeless students’ rights and opportunities, and (c) homeless students’ key support mechanisms. The author suggests that these three focus areas provide foundational insights into the nature and extent of students’ opportunities to succeed in school. Although homeless students’ experiences are noted to be similar to those of residentially stable low-income students, they appeared to be distinguishable based on their high rates of isolation and school mobility. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was found to have profound formative influences on the wider field of practice, but its full implementation is limited by the disconnected nature of students’ diverse support mechanisms. Based on the findings, the author suggests that researchers and practitioners consider the people, places, and policies that affect students in more holistic manners—as networks of practice.
Rational Suicide Among Patients Who Are Terminally Ill
Sharon M. Valente RN,
Donna Trainor RN
Patients' end-of-life decisions challenge nurses. Often, aggressive, life-prolonging strategies create ethical dilemmas for nurses when patients decide to stop treatment. In Oregon, assisted suicide is legal and will have a profound effect on nursing practice. When a patient considers suicide, nurses need to examine the patient's mental health, symptom management, and rational decision-making ability. Evaluation of suicide risk is a priority. Nurses need to recognize that medical and psychological symptoms often trigger thoughts of suicide, but prompt treatment of pain and symptoms also reduces suicide risk. Ethical issues and guidelines for management of patients considering suicide and evaluation of rationality are presented. AORN J 68 (August 1998) 252–264.
End-of-life decisions, specifically euthanasia and assisted suicide, are among the most controversial and confusing social and clinical practice issues.1 Regardless of individual or organizational stances on assisted suicide, it is likely to be legalized. When assisted suicide becomes legal, it will have a profound effect on nurses and nursing practice. Nurses, therefore, need to examine the issues involved. Suicidal patients experience undue suffering and require therapeutic nursing intervention. Advances in medical technology have increased the average American's life span; however, people who live longer also face life threatening and degenerative diseases that can diminish quality of life. Medical technology and laws to protect sanctity of life unintentionally may prolong life regardless of the costs or the patient's wish for death.2 Patients complain that few physicians ask about their preferences for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and less than 42% of physicians discuss advance directives with patients.3 difficulty in discussing end-of-life preferences often increases patients' fears. Physicians and patients each expect the other to initiate discussion of end-of-life issues, and so both remain silent.
Dying patients experience “a great deal of vigorous medical intervention and pain,” but whether patients agree to such intervention is unclear.4 Research suggests that too many Americans die alone and in pain and receive aggressive medical treatments not justified by likely benefits.5 Deeply held ethical positions divide society and professionals.6 Surveys indicate growing interest in and support for physician aid in dying.7 Data show that 74% of Americans surveyed believe that society should sanction withdrawal of life support for patients who are terminally ill to allow patients more control over active means to end life.8
Laws and codes that oblige health care professionals to protect life and to refrain from assisting death currently face substantive challenge and critique.9 The aggressive pursuit of curing illness and prolonging life create ethical dilemmas for health professionals when the painful illness or harmful treatment outweighs the benefits of curative therapies. Physicians and nurses debate what constitutes reasonable medical criteria for no treatment or no intervention. Such dilemmas often are complicated by professionals' discomfort with talking with patients about their end-of-life preferences and by growing pressure for patient participation in end-of-life decisions. Professionals often lack education and skill in evaluating patients' suicide risk and ability to make rational decisions about suicide.10 Researchers assert that nursed need to be knowledgeable about the legal, professional, and moral implications of assisted suicide because future laws may vary from state to state.11
The following hypothetical situation illustrates nurses' dilemma. Imagine you are caring for Dr S, a 65-year-old physician who expected a typical recovery in the intensive care unit (ICU) after open heart surgery; however, she failed ventilator weaning parameters, developed a fever, and subsequently, was diagnosed with pneumonia. Though her heart healed, Dr S still could not meet weaning parameters and required medication to treat her depression. A tracheostomy was planned, but Dr S remained dependent on oxygen. Her quality of life was unacceptable to her, and she did not want to live if she were dependent on oxygen. Dr S did not want to live with such fatigue, negativity, and poor quality of life. She asked ICU staff members if she could die with a barbiturate overdose and without oxygen. This situation challenges health care team members to examine the legal, moral, and ethical issues of the patient's request.
In this article, the authors review the literature and discuss assessment, intervention, and ethical issues involved with suicide and assisted suicide. Practice guidelines highlight assessment of a suicidal patient and identify criteria for evaluating rational suicide. The purpose of this article is to outline the nurse's role in detection, evaluation, and prevention of suicide, and in evaluation, referral, and advocacy for a rational patient who requests assisted suicide. Nurses should emphasize improving palliative care and treating depression because these interventions improve quality of life and often decrease the risk of suicide. Nurses also should examine their professional role and responsibility as advocates when rational patients request assisted suicide.
Most of the research about withdrawing life support for critically ill patients has focused on the patient's preferences for intensive care or withdrawing therapy, on ethical concerns, and on factors influencing withdrawal of life support.12 Clearly, limited variables have been investigated and scant research has examined the nurse's role or participation in these decisions. Some physicians and nurses support legalizing giving aid to patients who request help in dying, and some nurses report they have engaged in euthanasia or assisted suicide both with and without a physician's order.13 One researcher invited 1,600 critical care nurse subscribers to Nursing to report family member, surrogate, or physician requests for euthanasia or assisted suicide.14 Of the 852 respondents who practiced exclusively in intensive care, 141 (ie, 17%) reported receiving requests for euthanasia or assisted suicide, 129 (ie, 16%) reported they engaged in such practices, and an additional 35 (ie, 4%) reported hastening a patient's death by only pretending to give life-sustaining treatment ordered by a physician. Several problems in this study may confound the conclusions.
This study has the typical limitations of a volunteer sample and self-report data. Nonrespondent bias may occur in a volunteer sample when those who are concerned or upset about the study or disturbed about the implication of participating in a study on assisted suicide or euthanasia might not participate (eg, nurses may overreport participation in euthanasia). Self-report data may be biased by subjects who underreport or overreport their behavior or who misunderstand the questions. Inaccuracies also may occur when facts are distorted by memory or perception. For example, if a patient who is terminally ill dies after a nurse administers morphine for pain, the nurse incorrectly may label this assisted suicide or euthanasia. Also, confusion occurs when respondents are asked to report requests for assisted suicide or euthanasia from such diverse sources. It is possible that nurses reported requests from their own family members.
Nurses' responses to their own family members may differ from their professional responses. Giving high doses of opiates was cited as the most common method of euthanasia; however, many nurses do not differentiate administering medication intended to control pain that may facilitate death from euthanasia. Nurses and their professional organizations questioned the reliability and validity of the study that led to these results and the implication that some nurses seem “to deliberately give lethal overdoses of medication and… they practice at the limits of their authority.”15 Other researchers found that patients have asked nurses to hasten death by withdrawing treatment and also by active euthanasia.16 In this survey, 82% of Australian nurses called for guidelines for withholding and withdrawing treatment.
Disagreement in the literature about terms and definitions complicates the debate about the professional's response to patients' requests for suicide. Ancient Greeks defined and the Netherlands currently defines euthanasia as a good or gentle death;17 however, current definitions of a good death may reflect personal, cultural, religious, and historical differences. Euthanasia is the deliberate action to cause another individual's death and may be subdivided into active, passive, and voluntary acts.18 Assisted suicide means providing someone with the means to end his or her life without acting as the direct agent of death.19 The American Nurses Association (ANA) asserts that withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment can be acceptable ethically, and that providing medications with the intent to promote comfort and relieve suffering should not be confused with giving medications with intent to end life (ie, euthanasia).20 Some nurses, however, fear that providing adequate pain relief or educating a patient to avoid a lethal dose of medication might be viewed as assisting the patient to die.21 Some nurses who gave high doses of pain relievers to terminally ill patients have been called murderers by their colleagues.22
Examining a patient's mental health needs, suicide risk, and rational decision-making ability provides a foundation for care and suicide risk reduction. It also provides evidence for the rationality of end-of-life decisions. Nurses' rapport, support, knowledge, and empathy powerfully strengthen patients' coping strategies and enhance assessment of suicidal intent. Evaluation of suicide risk and clues is a priority, particularly after the patient is medically stable.
Most people provide clues before they commit suicide; they see no option to intolerable misery except suicide. At the same time, even those who are terminally ill also hope something might happen to relieve their suffering and often hope to be rescued from their impulses. Treatment of pain and symptoms reduces suicide risk because critically ill patients' symptoms often trigger thoughts of suicide.23 Though it may seem unlikely, critically ill patients have committed suicide despite their fatigue, illness, or sedation. Complications, delayed recovery after surgery, and treatment failure often precipitate depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideas that require monitoring.24 Critical care nurses often serve as the guardian of the patient's mental health, particularly when specialists focus on narrow physical parameters.
In the hypothetical example of Dr S, the cardiac surgeon believed Dr S was fine because her heart was healing; however, the nurse evaluated and documented the symptoms of major depression and recommended psychiatric referral and treatment. In addition, the nurse recommended ongoing monitoring of suicide risk. The nurse's duty is to evaluate and document the symptoms of major depression and suicide risk, indicate a nursing diagnosis (eg, inadequate coping due to depression), and advocate for treatment or referral.25 Other important actions include improving symptom management and advocating for an evaluation of rational suicide. The nurse also may restrict the suicidal patient's autonomy to prevent imminent harm, particularly when the patient lacks rational thinking or impulse control. Dr S's nurse needed persistence and negotiation skills to convince the cardiac surgeon to reexamine his belief that Dr S's postoperative recovery was fine.
Assessment facilitates case finding, referral, effective treatment, and suicide prevention that can reduce premature death by suicide. Nurses' first goals for a suicidal patient involve evaluation and suicide prevention. If a patient's choice of suicide is determined to be rational, advocacy for the patient's autonomy becomes important. Consultation; treatment of depression, pain, or symptoms; and therapeutic interventions may dispel suicidal intent effectively. Nurses encounter several challenges in responding to patients who are suicidal (Table 1). Nurses report that they struggle with their religious and spiritual values, uncomfortable feelings and fears, inadequate skills and knowledge, personal experiences with a loved one's suicide, and the weight of professional responsibility. Eligibility for assisted suicide should require that a patient be terminally ill with an incurable condition that is causing irremediable, intolerable suffering. Patients should identify when suffering or pain is intolerable, and nurses should verify that patients are informed about all palliative care options and have accurate data about their diseases. Safeguards should ensure that a patient's choice is voluntary. Safeguards for voluntary choice include
- ▪documentation of clear mental status,
Religious, spiritual, or other values about suicide Religious beliefs are antisuicide* Personal: Nurses have a right to their personal values; consultation can help nurses clarify or separate their values with duty to provide care. Topic is taboo in society; my religious conviction; suicide is wrong; a mortal sin* Professional: Nurses have a duty to ensure their values do not hinder caregiving. Find ways to evaluate risk and act. Ensure that your values do not keep the patient's pain and distress from being heard and treated. It is a coward's way out* Uncomfortable feelings; fears (eg, failure to prevent suicide) Fear of my failure—if the patient commits suicide, did I do enough?* Personal: Separate your fears from patient's suicide risk. Fear of feeling helpless* Professional: Your feelings can be important therapeutic tools: recognize fear is a common response; sharing it with others may help. Fear signals potential/serious risk—your duty is to detect risk, evaluate, take action, get a consult, and notify health care team members. Provide quality care; recognize that not every suicide will be prevented. Fear of own inadequate response* Fear of not being able to care for patients' needs that are not being met* Inadequate skills, knowledge, experience Do not want to say the wrong thing* Personal: Recognize feelings, build confidence. Unsure of ability to help; uncertain of own skill and knowledge to assess risk* Professional: Build knowledge, skills, expertise. Do not avoid assessment. Use consultation. Your task is not to “fix things” or be the expert. You need to say, “I care about your pain and distress and want to make sure you get the treatment you need. We need to talk about this, make sure you are safe, and consult with our team of experts.” Frustration with inability to convince patients that they’re needed and loved* Failure; I’m not a psychiatrist* Do not know what to say; how can I affect one who is so troubled* Personal experiences with a loved one's suicide Due to a chronic illness, my parent committed suicide when I was young* Personal: You may want to seek support to help resolve painful loss. My young brother committed suicide* Professional: Detect risk, get support, and use consultation. Recognize when you need to ask a colleague to evaluate a patient. Professional issues Note wanting to get involved but knowing I already am* Professional: Consultation to share concern, discuss duties, and plan care. Collaborate with team. Clarify duty and roles–RN is not responsible for patient's action. Duty is to detect. Fear of not having the best response; feeling responsible for patient's actions* Tension in medical, legal, and ethical duty* Not difficult to respond It is not difficult if you can identify signs not relieved by physical or psychological solutions* Personal: Recognize your knowledge and skill in psychosocial domain. I feel that I have good psychiatric skills to deal with someone who mentions suicide* Professional: Recognize that you can provide a valuable resource to colleagues and patients. Consider how you might cope with aftermath of a patient's suicide. I do not feel uncomfortable talking about it*
- ▪repeated request for assisted suicide over time, and
- ▪a nondirective interview to evaluate whether patient feels coerced and to examine motives.
In the worst case scenario, a nurse who is caring for a patient who is terminally ill and confused may be ordered to give a dose of opiates to the patient who is not expected to live. Imagine that an ICU physician ordered the overdose of opiates but failed to document the rationale and discuss this course of action with family members, the patient, or the nurse. When the nurse questions the order and objects to the lethal dose, ICU team members may report that this is best and follow the patient's wishes. The nurse faces difficult choices:
- ▪to refuse to administer the opiates,
- ▪to request consultation,
- ▪to confer with supervisors, and
- ▪to resist pressure from colleagues.
The nurse may decide to refrain from giving the patient the medication during his or her shift, but may return the next day and learn that the patient did receive the opiates and subsequently died. This scenario attests to the difficulty of collaborative care planning and discussing end-of-life decisions. In these situations, health care professionals struggle to do the right thing and to weigh the patient's wishes with ICU team members' beliefs about what is best for the patient.
RATIONAL DECISIONS ABOUT SUICIDE
Patients who are critically ill typically commit suicide because of poor quality of life, failed requests for treatment withdrawal, and distressing treatments. Approximately 2% to 5% of people who are terminally ill commit suicide.26 One researcher argues that suicide is a person's serious and legitimate answer and that clinicians cannot assume that suicide simply is a symptom of individual depression or failure to provide some needed human services.27 Nurses need guidelines to evaluate the rationality of requests for suicide. Rationality is the capacity to deliberate, to communicate in relationships, and to reflect on and examine one's own values and purposes.
Evaluation focuses on the suicidal patient's capacity for rational self-inspection, motives, plans, and alternative choices. A patient's degree of agitation, disorientation, major depression, and poor reality orientation may impair rational decisions. When these conditions are present in a patient who is suicidal, the nurse should recommend a psychiatric evaluation and treatment. The nurse also needs to talk with the patient about thoughts and plans that led to the choice of suicide and explore whether the patient feels pressured to choose suicide. Questions should be nonjudgmental, open ended, and ask about suicide.
- ▪Why choose suicide now?
- ▪What prevented suicide before?
- ▪Do you (the patient) want help or hope someone else will decide?28
Determining decisional capacity and clear mental status may be particularly difficult when the patient is facing death and grieving losses. Medications, illness, and ambivalence may reduce the patient's insight, ability to communicate, skills, or thinking; therefore, a formal psychiatric evaluation is useful (Table 2).
|Assessment—Evaluate suicide risk|
|Acute response to imminent suicidal emergency|
Rational decisions reflect careful planning and consideration of adequate information (eg, complete and accurate medical facts); preparations (eg, wills, funeral arrangements); effect on others; treatments; and alternatives (eg, durable power of attorney, advance directives). Nurses should investigate the plan, anticipated date, method and means for suicide, and the expected outcomes (eg, death, rescue) and contrast this decision with the person's culture, values, and beliefs. Discussion between nurses and patients also should focus on anticipation of the consequences of the suicide on loved ones and whether the person intends to inform loved ones of this plan. One goal is to encourage a thorough consideration of alternatives and palliative care options.
Rational decisions should be free from coercion, and all options should be examined.29 A discussion of the precipitants, options, goals, intended outcome, and motives for suicide provides evidence of mental clarity and voluntary choice. If possible, nurses should suggest treatment options. For example, if the patient believes suicide is a better option to burdening his or her family, the nurse can inform the patient about home care or hospice services. Patients appreciate education about symptoms and illness trajectory that reduces misconceptions and fears. Any delay in recovery or progress prompts people to fear the worst. Hence, failure to meet weaning parameters may provoke the idea that a patient will be dependent on a ventilator indefinitely. This conclusion may not be true.
Consultation may help nurses weigh the evidence of rational thinking. The prevailing criteria for rational suicide among adults with a terminal illness include
- ▪rational considerations,
- ▪understandable motives,
- ▪careful planning,
- ▪review of alternatives,
- ▪absence of coercion, and
- ▪recognition of consequences.30
Nurses need to document findings, collaborate with health care team members, advocate for the patient, and use consultation about ethical and legal duties.
Rational requests for suicide or assisted suicide pose difficulties because few practice guidelines exist, professional duties may conflict, and ethical dilemmas are challenging.31 Many nurses would understand the feelings of a colleague who reported the following.
I know I should sound the alarm when the patient is suicidal, but when the patient has end-stage cancer and unrelieved pain, I also feel obliged to be an advocate. I can understand the patient's wish to die with dignity.32
Nurses also experience distress when aggressive medical care continues although the patient has requested withdrawal of treatment. Nurses struggle to decide what is right for the patient, family members, and the critical care setting. Though most ethical codes advise health care professionals to refuse participation in assisted suicide, survey data suggest that many nurses desire better guidelines for end-of-life care.33
Palliative care for dying patients is critically important and depends on competent assessment. Palliative care is treatment of aversive physical, psychiatric, and existential symptoms of people who are dying. Poorly managed symptoms should not provide the motivation for suicide. Nurses need to improve pain and symptom management and advocate for referral and treatment of depression or other mental health disorders. Often patients appreciate education about the physical and biochemical causes of depression or anxiety that occur with physical illness. Another intervention involves helping patients consider options to improve their quality of life through spiritual or other interventions.
Education, accurate facts, and options provide other avenues to suicide prevention. Information can help patients realize that suicide may not be the only way out of their suffering. Patients appreciate learning how to talk about end-of-life preferences. Both patients and physicians need to know that they need to initiate end-of-life discussions. Suicidal thoughts may emerge when patients do not know the facts of their situations or the options (eg, hospice care, withdrawal of treatment).
Nurses need to overcome communication barriers and improve discussions with patients about decisions at the end of life. Patients need encouragement to express their wishes, and physicians need to be asked to explain their plan of care, ask patients about end-of-life decisions, and respond to patients' concerns.34 Nurses can facilitate this discussion by offering to be present, by encouraging advance directives, or by documenting the patient's concerns and wishes. When a patient's preferences are documented, physicians need guidance to act on these wishes.35
In another worst case scenario, surgeons failed to consider a patient's end-of-life preferences. They also failed to inform family members that the patient with disseminated intravascular coagulation was not recovering from surgery and was nearing death. The surgeons offered hopeful comments that they would manage her symptoms of anemia, nausea, and infection. Nurses became distressed when surgeons refused to share the news of her deteriorating condition with family members and feared the patient would die and family members would have no warning. Nurses called an outside nursing consultant who talked with surgeons briefly. The nursing consultant then met with the patient's husband at 9 AM to tell him that his wife's death appeared near. The consultant helped the husband call family members together to say good-bye, support each other, and make final arrangements. By 2 PM that afternoon, family members had convened, spent time with the patient, and were saying good-bye. By 3 PM, the patient was comatose, and she died later that evening. The ICU nurses' intervention permitted the patient to die peacefully, surrounded by her family members and loved ones. Their concern that family members be notified was essential in facilitating family members' grief.
The difficulty of physician/patient discussions about end-of-life issues often causes nurses to be the liaisons who facilitate patient/physician communication, particularly when patients see physicians only briefly during rounds. Nurses need to negotiate with physicians to overcome barriers that interfere with communication. In one example, a critical care patient was depressed when surgeons repeatedly promised to extubate but failed to do so and failed to talk with the patient about their decision not to extubate. The physicians held rounds outside the patient's room and did not share the reason for the change in plans with the patient. Effective nursing interventions included reflecting with the patient about how difficult waiting was and how distressing the ventilator was and insisting that physicians talk with the patient.
Nurses can use several strategies to help patients broach sensitive topics, including dying, and share these with loved ones and physicians. Referrals to pastoral care, clinical nurse specialists, social workers, and others for social support also are beneficial. Nurses' presence and active listening help patients and family members with their struggle with death issues. Patients appreciate nurses who understand their distress and recognize that no one feels suicidal without suffering and good reason. Family members appreciate guidance to call other family members or loved ones together, to say good-bye, to arrange for resources (eg, priest, rabbi), and to make funeral arrangements. One researcher recommends that ICU nurses voice and document concerns when a postoperative terminally ill patient's wishes for withdrawing treatment (eg, ventilator) are ignored and when stressful or ineffective treatments are continued.36 The researcher also encourages nurses to be mindful of the rational patient's wishes and to advocate so these wishes are considered respectfully. Improving palliation the quality of care generally requires changes in the hospital's organization and culture and active support of hospital leaders.37 Nurses can provide powerful transformational leaders to accomplish these goals.
Nurses may encounter conflicts in their obligations to respect autonomy and to safeguard life. In one case, for example, Mr J was a patient with a chronic autoimmune disorder with respiratory complications and became dependent on a ventilator after elective surgery for bladder repair. His request for assisted suicide and ventilator withdrawal caused distress among ICU staff members. Some staff members argued for respecting Mr J's autonomy and others argued that their role was to sound the alarm and prevent suicide. Nurses sometimes complain they have limited power over medical treatment decisions when the patient's wishes to stop treatment are ignored (eg, a gastrostomy tube is inserted despite a terminally ill patient's request to withdraw treatment).
A review of bioethical principles and a bioethics consultant or committee may help resolve the conflict.38 Consultation can provide important emotional, educational, legal, and ethical support. Ethical principles direct the clinician to benefit others or do good (beneficence); to prevent evil or harm (nonmaleficence); and to respect the patient's freedom to determine his or her own destiny (autonomy). Beneficence is in force when health care providers initiate CPR when patients have documented requests for no CPR. A good example of nonmaleficence is the nurse's request that painful or distressing treatments be withdrawn when the patient is dying. Autonomy exists when a person can act intentionally with understanding and informed decision making. Health care professionals demonstrate paternalism when they believe that they are the sole arbiter of what is good for the patient (eg, continuing to use a ventilator when the patient has requested its withdrawal). Paternalistic interventions (eg, providing food after inserting a gastrostomy tube for a terminally ill patient who wants food and fluid withheld) restrict autonomy and should be used with informed consent or when patients are unable to meet criteria for acting rationally.
Research suggests that respect for autonomy and the person's right to die may prompt some nurses to support suicide or to participate in assisted suicide.39 Before taking action, nurses need to review the legal and ethical guidelines for practice and recognize that assisting suicide currently is illegal in all states, except Oregon. No law permits nurses to assist with suicide. Even when a state legalizes physician-assisted suicide, this does not automatically give legal sanctions for nurses.
Other ethical guidelines come from feminism, situation ethics, rights and responsibilities, and caring. Another conflict occurs when professional duties conflict with personal values and beliefs (eg, religion, values, culture). Some nurses report their religion forbids suicide, and they may conclude incorrectly that they cannot talk with patients about suicide. Nurses need to take precautions to avoid judging patients or imposing value judgments on others.40 Nurses are entitled to respect their own personal beliefs and values and also are obliged to have the knowledge and skill to competently evaluate and treat patients. In the authors' study of the difficulties nurses encounter with suicidal patients, nurses commented about distress and their inability to talk with suicidal patients because suicide conflicted with their religious or other values. Consultation with a religious or spiritual advisor may be beneficial for health care professionals who believe their religious values hinder their ability to evaluate and refer suicidal patients.
Nurses have a duty to care for suicidal patients. If a nurse's religious values forbid suicide and the nurse feels unable to evaluate and care for the suicidal patient, several choices require consideration. If the hospital offers professionals the opportunity to decline caregiving to avoid situations of ethical conflict, the nurse can select this option when the patient admits to suicidal considerations. Otherwise, the nurse will find consultation helpful to reexamine conflicting obligations to meet the duty of care.
The ANA guidelines outline duties for assessment, intervention, advocacy, counseling, and patient care.41 The California Nurses Association Ethics Committee writes that
suicide is a mode of death that involves undue suffering in most instances. When possible, nurses should strive to relieve conditions that produce suffering and engage in a broad range of suicide prevention activities. Nurses do not act in a manner that assists patients to commit suicide.42
Encouraging or participating in suicide are contrary to the essence of nursing. Some nurses believe that this approach to suicide prevention gives inadequate guidance—they feel overwhelmed by the need to resolve all the patient's problems or they lack experience in suicide prevention.
When Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide, the Oregon Nurses Association established guidelines for nurses who choose to be involved, for those who choose not to be involved, and for improved palliative care. Guidelines were established for conscientious objectors and for those whose moral and ethical stance allowed them to provide care to a patient who has chosen assisted suicide. Regardless of a nurse's moral and ethical stance, nurses cannot
- ▪administer lethal medication to cause death,
- ▪breach confidentiality of patients exploring assisted suicide,
- ▪subject patients or family members to unwarranted judgmental complaints or actions because of the patient's exploration of assisted suicide,
- ▪subject peers or health care team members to unwarranted judgmental comments because of their decision to care for a patient who chose assisted suicide, and
- ▪abandon or refuse to provide comfort and safety measures to the patient.43
These helpful guidelines are similar to nurses' duties when abortion became legal.44 Some people believe that legalizing assisted suicide will become a slippery slope because legalizing an act under specific circumstances may be broadened to permit that act for larger populations.
Patients who are terminally ill, however, proclaim their right to die with dignity when they face overwhelming pain and unacceptable quality of life, and they ask nurses to advocate for death with dignity. Some 2.3 million Americans die yearly in the United States; evidence shows too many die without pain relief or palliative care.45 Nurses who find the current guidelines insufficient will appreciate the value of political action approaches to respond to these current clinical and ethical challenges.46
Critical care and perioperative nurses are challenged to examine the issue—son one hand, we must prevent suicide and safeguard life by evaluating and treating patients and by assuring them of effective palliative care and psychiatric treatment. Our patients deserve education and high quality nursing care that respects their autonomy and wishes. On the other hand, when a terminally ill patient has received effective palliative care, education about options, and treatment, the patient may decide to withdraw or refuse treatment and to request assisted dying. We need to examine the ways a patriarchal system focused on continued curative strategies may burden a patient who wishes to die without intrusive technology. As nurses, we cannot afford to bypass reflection on these issues. We must examine our responsibility as advocates for our patients, particularly when they cannot speak for themselves. This task is not easy or simple, but it is part of the essence of nursing.
Sharon M. Valente, RN, PhD, FAAN, is an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Donna Trainor, RN, BSN, is a graduate student in the Department of Nursing at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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- 25Valente, Saunders, “Case consultation: Assisted suicide and euthanasia,” 291–334; Saunders, Valente, “The withdrawn response,” in Psychological Aspects of Critical Care Nursing, 92–108; Alspach, Instructor's Resource Manual for the AACN Core Curriculum for Critical Care Nursing, 200–201.
- 26S Jamison. “AIDS and assisted suicide,”. Hemlock Quarterly. July 1992; 48: 4–6.
- 27HE Moody. “‘Rational suicide’ on the grounds of old age?”. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 1991; 24(no 2): 261–277.
- 28MP Battin. Ethical Issues in Suicide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1995, 131–154.
- 29Jamison, “AIDS and assisted suicide,” 4–6; Moody, “Rational suicide on the ground of old age?” 261–277.
- 30Jamison, “AIDS and assisted suicide,” 4–6; Moody, “Rational suicide on the ground of old age?” 261–277; Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide, 198–226.J Werth. “Commentary in S Valente & J Saunders. Case consultation: Assisted suicide and euthanasia,”. Journal of Pharmaceutical Care in Pain and Symptom Control. 1996; 4(no 1–2): 291–300.K Siegel. “Psychosocial aspects of rational suicide,”. American Journal of Psychotherapy. July 1986; 40: 405–418.
- 31Valente, Saunders, “Case consultation: Assisted suicide and euthanasia,” 291–334; Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide, 198–227.
- 32S M Valente, S Saunders, “National survey of oncology nurses' attitudes and knowledge,” unpublished data.
- 33Stevens, Hassan, “Nurses and management of death, dying and euthanasia,” 541–554.
- 34Isaacs, Knickman, eds. To Improve Health and Health Care, 21–186; Lo, “Improving care near the end of life. Why is it so hard?” 1634–1636.
- 35Isaacs, Knickman, eds, To Improve Health and Health Care, 21–186.
- 36Lo, “Improving care near the end of life. Why is it so hard?” 1634–1636.
- 38Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide, 26–74; Werth, “Commentary in S Valente & J Saunders. Case consultation: Assisted suicide and euthanasia,” 291–300; Siegel, “Psychosocial aspects of rational suicide,” 405–418.
- 39Valente, Saunders, “Oncology nurses' misconceptions about suicide,” 209–216; Valente, Saunders, “Case consultation: Assisted suicide and euthanasia,” 291–334.
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