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Decriminalizing Suicide: Bills Aim to Focus Conversation on Mental Health

Arlington woman whose daughter committed suicide writes on online petition: 'Feelings of hopelessness are not criminal acts.'

Suicide is considered a common-law crime in Virginia. A pair of state lawmakers hope that by abolishing the crime they can shift the conversation to one focused on mental health rather than criminality. File photo from Oak Forest (Ill.) Patch
Suicide is considered a common-law crime in Virginia. A pair of state lawmakers hope that by abolishing the crime they can shift the conversation to one focused on mental health rather than criminality. File photo from Oak Forest (Ill.) Patch
By Jason Spencer

As traumatic as suicide or attempted suicide can be on someone's family or friends — or even that person, if he or she survives the attempt — Virginia law adds another layer of pain: Suicide is considered a common-law crime in this state.

The archaic law is a carryover from the English legal system, one many states have abolished. Centuries ago, a person who committed suicide was guilty of a felony — having offended nature, God and the king — and therefore forfeited their property to the crown. Anyone who tried unsuccessfully to kill themselves could be hanged, according to the Utah State Bar.

Virginia law no longer stipulates a punishment for suicide.

But in 1992, the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirmed suicide as an "immoral or unlawful act." A trial court barred a woman from suing her husband's psychiatrist for negligence after her husband committed suicide, though the Supreme Court did allow the woman's suit to proceed. In such cases, families must prove that the person who committed suicide was of "unsound mind" at the time of the act, which can be difficult, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The idea that suicide is talked about and treated as a criminal matter rather than a mental health issue is a problem, state Del. Rob Krupicka said. He and state Sen. Adam Ebbin, both Northern Virginia Democrats, have filed legislation in Richmond that would abolish suicide as a crime.

"Really, it's about erasing the stigma to this. Making this change brings suicide into the same standing as it is in other states," Krupicka told Patch.

The state lawmaker said he has experienced incidences of suicide in his own family.

"It's tragic. It's something that really devastates a family and forces them to do a lot of soul searching," Krupicka said. "The last thing a family needs to hear after that is, 'By the way, your loved one is also a criminal.' "

Given that outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell's final proposed budget makes mental health services a priority, Krupicka expects mental health issues to be widely discussed in the 2014 legislative session and enjoy bipartisan support.

"If someone's trying to commit suicide… This is a preventable mental health issue," he said. "We need to make sure systems are in place to help them out."

Krupicka said a number of individuals and suicide prevention groups have already reached out to him on the matter, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

One of those individuals was Sharon Webster of Arlington, according to the Free Lance-Star. Webster's 25-year-old daughter, Lauren, killed herself in 2012 just days before graduating with honors from the University of Virginia.

Lauren Webster joined the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad when she was 18 and put a lot of energy into advocating for patients, according to David Drachsler, a member of the ACLU of Virginia board of directors. But she suffered from depression, and when it became more severe, apparently overdosed on prescription medicine.

"How can the Commonwealth add to the pain and stigma of mental illness by labeling someone a criminal whose inner suffering drives them to suicide?" Drachsler asked in a post on the ACLU of Virginia website in July. Such labeling may deter those suffering from mental illness from seeking treatment, he wrote.

Sharon Webster started a petition at Change.org in hopes of abolishing the antiquated law.

"Those that attempt or die by suicide are not criminals," she wrote on the petition, which has 332 supporters. "Feelings of hopelessness are not criminal acts."

She told the Free Lance-Star that she was "appalled" when she learned suicide was a crime in Virginia, that it made dealing with her daughter's death even worse.

"It is absolutely appalling that this is a crime," Marcia Kitzerow of Amissville wrote on the Change.org petition. "These people need help… not to be judged!"

Other states that have decriminalized suicide have not seen any significant change in their suicide rates, Krupicka told Patch.

Virginia's suicide rate is at a 13-year high, according to Capital News Service.

In 2011, this state saw 1,067 suicides, according to the most recent data available.

About 90 percent of people who die by suicide were living with a mental illness at the time of their death, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Do you believe suicide should be considered a criminal matter? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

More on Bills Headed to the 2014 Virginia General Assembly:

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Alice T December 17, 2013 at 08:30 PM
I have heard two good reasons for making suicide illegal: 1. It allows police to intervene when someone is attempting suicide. 2. If it were legal, it might be come expected, for example, in the case of terminal illness, and those who chose not to kill themselves would be viewed negatively.
TPKeller December 18, 2013 at 12:36 AM
As Alice commented, there are many ramifications to such a change. One must be extremely careful to fix the specific problem, and not cause many more. It is currently against the law in Virginia to assist a suicide. If the act itself is suddenly declared "legal," what reason would there be for a judge to uphold the assisted suicide law? I would prefer a piece by piece fix to what is broken - directly addressing the problems mentioned, rather than this broad change which lowers the value we place on life.

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