A joint Utah State University and Mississippi State University study finds that most people, including people with disabilities, say it is more acceptable for a person with a disability to kill themselves than a person without a disability. Results from Is suicide an option?: The impact of disability on suicide acceptability in the context of depression, suicidality, and demographic factors will be available online in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders.
The findings aren’t surprising, says lead researcher Emily Lund, a fourth-year disability disciplines doctoral student at Utah State University. “The fact that we still found disability made suicide so much more acceptable — and that none of the demographics, attitudes, or experiences we controlled for accounted for that difference — shows, that, yes, disability itself does change how we view suicide,” she says.
The study asked 500 adults to read five pairs of hypothetical vignettes about individuals with and without disabilities who experienced suicidal ideation following a life stressor. Participants were asked questions regarding the acceptability of suicide for each vignette as well as their attitude towards disability. In each vignette pair, suicide was seen significantly more acceptable for the person with a disability.
Lund did find one surprise in her research. “We expected people with personal experience with disability would be less likely to see disability as something that creates greater suicide acceptability, but that wasn’t the case,” says Lund, who has cerebral palsy.
“The study points to a truth that disabled people have long known, namely that disability alone can be seen as a reason for suicide” says John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts Massachusetts, a disability rights organization that opposes assisted suicide. A primary case against assisted suicide is that society is still too quick to imagine that having a disability is worse than death, which the study’s findings seem to support.
Kelly says the vignettes are problematic because the disabilities themselves are set up as the primary reason for suicidal ideation. For example, one pair of vignettes compares two 30-year-old men whose girlfriends break off a five year relationship. “But breaking up specifically because of disability is very different from breaking off a relationship because of a high pressure career,” Kelly says. “People see disability as lowering the value of your life, while a high-pressure career raises your status.
“It’s obvious that disability is the difference in each matched pair,” says Kelly. “Unfortunately, the questions are constructed so that those negative responses are encouraged.”