St. Joseph's Colege warns of assisted suicide's possible impact on students.


St. Joseph's College warns of assisted suicide's possible impact on students.

April 18, 2016

Following is an excerpt from the March 31 submission of St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta, to the Government of Alberta on physician-assisted suicide.


Through its student life and campus ministry teams, as well as some members of the academic faculty, St. Joseph's College dedicates significant resources to suicide intervention and prevention. These resources are made available to all staff and students who require them and not just those who reside or take courses at the college.

Although most University of Alberta students might not meet the Supreme Court of Canada test, namely, "a competent adult person who 1) clearly consents to the termination of life and 2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition," our concern is that legislation permitting physician-assisted death (hereafter PAD) may have the unintended social-psychological effect of "normalizing" suicide.

As such, we believe it would have an adverse impact on our efforts of preventing suicide among a well-documented high-risk population, namely, University of Alberta students.

We acknowledge that most students at risk do not and likely will not in future have need of the assistance of a physician to take their own lives; however, we contend that legalizing PAD will contribute to a perception that suicide is an acceptable response to difficult life situations.

Our concern stems not simply from our direct experience of the suffering and chaos a university student's death has on his or her peers and family members, but from a very long-standing and well thought out moral position stemming from our religious belief about the sanctity of human life.

Further, we argue in the final section of this submission the philosophical principle underlying the Supreme Court's PAD decision - not all lives are worth living - requires much more elaboration particularly because we are dealing with fundamental issues of life and death.


From the early years of St. Joseph's College, campus ministry (chaplaincy) has been a resource to students and the wider University community. As a community we desire to support the whole person, helping students and other members of the community to find balance in their lives and to experience emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

This can be a challenge because university students in particular are in an especially fragile situation. University life is a "pressure cooker" of stress that can often lead to mental and emotional instability.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 (Centres for Disease Control). Reputable studies affirm that the population we are working with at the university is already vulnerable to suicide.


In 2013 a National College Health Assessment (NCHA) study showed that 8.5 per cent, or 3,120 University of Alberta students seriously considered suicide. In addition, 1.4 per cent, or 514 actually attempted suicide in 2013. (

Responding to this study, St. Joseph's College and the University of Alberta have together worked hard to put into place supportive programs to help prevent suicide and support the mental well-being of students.

Examples of these include suicide awareness and prevention programs, such as ASIST training for all residence life staff; QPR and community helpers; peer support programs such as mentorship programs and peer support groups.

We have created an environment where students know their lives are of value to us, they are important to us and that we want to see them flourish, succeed and live - in short, that all lives are worth living.

As a college we are concerned that the legalization of PAD will lead to an eroding of this life-affirming culture that we have worked to build at the college and the university as a whole. We fear that, as PAD becomes normative and even supported by physicians, in the eyes of students who may be already vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, suicide will appear to be a reasonable solution to their problems.

At present, suicide is not viewed as a reasonable solution. We do not want any student who feels desperate, alone and depressed to think that death is a viable answer.


The University of Alberta along with St. Joseph's College, have worked together to create a climate of support in which life is affirmed and suicide is not an option.

We believe that PAD legislation threatens to undermine these efforts, precisely by giving students the impression that suicide is in fact a socially accepted and reasonable option - even if they do not seek the assistance of a physician in ending their lives.

Regardless of legislation, St. Joseph's College, as a Roman Catholic institution, will never cease to affirm the value and dignity of life at every stage. We will always seek to support the emotional and spiritual well-being of students and we will never refer a student to a physician who would offer to assist them in taking their own life.

However, we fear very soon we will be immersed in a culture that sends students the message death is a reasonable choice in the midst of their suffering.

Fr. T. Kersch, csb

Fr. J. Gallagher, csb

Fr. D. McLeod, csb

Prof. P. Flaman, PhD

Ms. T. Robinson, MDiv