30 January 2024

'It haunts me to this day': How voluntary assisted dying laws could also reduce trauma for police

| Claire Fenwicke
Join the conversation
Canberra Police officer

Police officers conduct investigations on behalf of the ACT Coroner to determine a person’s cause of death, including in cases of suicide. Photo: Region.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide and voluntary assisted dying.

Improving the mental health of police officers has been highlighted as one reason why voluntary assisted dying laws should be passed in the ACT.

The Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) is one of dozens of organisations that has made a submission to an inquiry into the legislation.

“We already see too many traumatic deaths,” union representative Troy Roberts told the select committee examining the proposed voluntary assisted dying (VAD) legislation.

“It has a significant impact on the mental health of police officers.”

Police are often called to conduct a welfare check when someone has concerns about a loved one.

Mr Roberts said, in some cases, officers would be the first to discover someone’s body.

In others, it’s a family member or passer-by.

“Some poor person, usually family members, has to find them,” Mr Roberts said.

“I’ve had to climb a tree to cut the rope and lower someone down, and it haunts me to this day.”

READ ALSO ‘Desperately needed’ new paramedic roster to get more emergency workers on the frontline

On average, 34 people take their lives in the ACT each year. There’s no indication how many of these are due to a person’s terminal illness as current legislation and reporting guidelines don’t allow for attribution to VAD.

Sometimes, officers will find a note from the deceased person that outlines their recent terminal diagnosis. Other times, it will be discovered as police interview a person’s doctor.

The police union has argued that while some people will continue to choose suicide despite VAD being an option, introducing this legislation would give people an option to end their lives both on their terms and with dignity.

“All too often, police attend suicide scenes, sometimes in public, where they have to physically handle or touch the deceased to confirm the death or offer medical treatment, which can negatively impact the police officers’ mental and physical well-being,” the AFPA submitted.

“It’s also traumatic for family or members of the community who are first on the scene and have to witness the person in their final resting position.”

Mr Roberts said while officers have training for these types of situations, nothing could prepare them for discovering a body during what was expected to be a welfare check.

“You’ll never take away the trauma of it, but [with these laws] you can take away the surprise element of it,” he said.

The AFPA felt the proposed legislation was solid and evidence-based but suggested the law should be reviewed every year for the first three years of implementation and then every two years after that.

It’s currently proposed the legislation not be reviewed until three years after commencement.

Mr Roberts argued this was to ensure any identified loopholes could be “jumped on” early.

“We think [the legislation] is sound and solid, and there’s enough safeguards in there to make sure it’s not misused or abused,” he said.

“[But] if there are issues … I think three years is a little bit too long [for a review].

“I’m not sure we could wait three years for [potential] loopholes to be closed.”

He conceded reviews were labour-intensive and suggested VAD data should be part of the responsible directorate’s annual report.

READ ALSO Calls for ‘permanency and stability’ for out-of-hours acute mental health response team

Another issue raised in several submissions was that people with reduced decision-making capacity, such as those diagnosed with dementia, won’t be considered eligible to access VAD.

The submission from National Seniors Australia ACT branch took this a step further, arguing the legislation should also meet the needs of people who are “of an advanced age who do not have a terminal illness or a serious condition, but whose quality of life is intolerable”.

Representative Michael Thomas Boesen outlined people experiencing “multiple geriatric syndrome” – which can be typical of advanced age, such as sight and hearing impairments, osteoarthritis, balance problems and weak bones – should also be considered eligible.

“Those conditions impose an insufferable burden on the person,” he said.

Public hearings into the legislation continue.

Further information on the proposed voluntary assisted dying laws for the ACT is available online.

If the issue of voluntary assisted dying raises issues for you or your family, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Griefline on 1300 845 745.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

The naysayers here need to remember it is for people with extreme medical conditions that will kill them in a level of pain that no domestic pet would be allowed to endure. The step further discussed in this article is not in contention atm. It is VOLUNTARY. Its not up to your money grabbing in laws to make this decision for you.

How about some humanity!! Anyone who has had to watch a loved one die a slow and painful death (Yes there were drugs given to them to ease the pain, they didn’t work) should support VAD.

Donna Stewart3:44 pm 02 Feb 24

As a person in my 80th year I applaud any movement to extend VAD to those for whom life has become a burden. Those who oppose this choice need not avail themselves of the option. Life is precious but all who live must die and the process of the breaking down of the body can be more horrendous for some than others. We should have the right to exit with dignity when we judge that our time has come.

My father had the most terribly painful last 5 years which began with medical errors causing a stroke whilst awaiting surgery that was supposed to fix the pain from another condition. He wanted to die but didn’t want family to find him as a suicide victim. If he’d had access to VAD, we could all have supported him in his wishes, as no-one should live with such terrible pain that he could not sleep for 5 years in their 90s.

We’ll surprise, surprise the extreme Christian lobby couldn’t resist coming out of the woodwork judging by the comments below! The AFPA makes an excellent case, which I think a lot of people had never considered which is the impact on emergency service personnel who are tasked with recovering a person who has taken their own life. VAD may well reduce the amount of trauma these valuable emergency service workers experience. I would suggest these middle class woke extreme Christian have probably never seen a deceased person who has taken their one life. They need to realise that no amount of mental health counselling is going to stop someone who can only see blackness from ending their pain.

This is the first time I have seen the word ‘woke’ applied to Christian moralists, rather than ‘progressives’. The word has clearly lost all meaning other than ‘someone I don’t like’.

One of the reasons it illustrates thoughtlessness on the part of its enthusiastic users.

Yes – especially when you consider the original meaning of the word: “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination”, which I will happily wear, but it hardly describes the Christian lobby. And obviously it’s not possible to be middle class and not an “extreme Christian”

How disgusting! Instead of trying to make a better quality of life LETS JUST DIE!!!! A slippery slope indeed!!! My greedy dil would have me put down for my property. No.

Perhaps you should understand the concept of “voluntary” in voluntary assisted dying. It’s to allow those who don’t have a quality of life to decide, for themselves, that they want to die with dignity. Any legislation that allows your dil to have you “put down” is suborning murder.

Voluntary assisted dying / euthanasia is the same thing as suicide, it’s just given a different title.

How long before voluntary becomes involuntary?

How soon before we slip down the road of the Nazis who euthanised the disabled and mentally ill?

@Oscar Mike
The slippery slope is narrow minded bigots like yourself, who want to deny the right of others to choose (please read and understand the word VOLUNTARY) to die with dignity.

GrumpyGrandpa8:46 pm 29 Jan 24

And this is the slippery slope that people have warned against.

Even having a discussion about broadening the “eligibility” for Assisted Dying to include
“multiple geriatric syndrome” (advanced age, sight and hearing impairments, osteoarthritis, balance problems and weak bones), is sickeningly disgusting.

Ms Blackwell8:01 pm 30 Jan 24

Some of this is ingrained ableism. Disabled younger ppl live with all of these disabilities and with support can live fruitful lives.

Ms Blackwell8:11 pm 30 Jan 24

Agree. Tho i think ableism has a lot to do with it. As a disabled person, we live with all these things and more, and with support can still have a fulfilling life. If our disabilities are the same, why should our lives both not be worthwhile? If we allow VAD cos someone can’t access disability support to live a meaningful life, that is a sad indictment on us. Sigh…

If it is the choice of the person who is not coping with their situation and has had plenty of time to adjust to it, then they should have that right. It is their life, no-one else’s.

Life must be the principle of any civilised society, for once willpower usurps it, there’s nothing to stop people destroying themselves and others.

I understand that this frightfully dark chapter in human history is being sold to the lemmings as progress and compassion, but for anyone who wasn’t born yesterday, this is only the same ruse as the one used by any sleazy used car salesman, who presents the beautiful exterior of both himself and the vehicle in order to hide from the buyer the dubious interior.

The only words apt to describe the people who push this nonsense and who support it, are the ones which would see me banned from using this forum.

Wake up to yourselves, you gullible fools.

@Vasily M
I have woken up to myself, Vasily – that’s why I believe it should be my choice to die with dignity, if that is my desire.

You have every right to refuse access to VAD yourself – you have no right to dicate that others should be denied access if they so choose.

You lunatic ravings should not see you banned from here. They serve as a reminder that we live in a democracy where even the ill-informed and ignorant are entitled to their say, within the limits arbitrated by the moderators. While your blithering commentary may be preaching to your like minded choir, you certainly don’t convert, to your nonsensical dogma, those who are sensible and capable of rational thinking.

It’s indeed a slippery slope.

Soon we’ll be encouraged to eat soylent green because it’s good for the environment.

Humanity, not life, must be the basis of a civilised society, as well as the free will to direct one’s life according how you are coping with it all. No-one else should control your life.

to Oscar Mike – Surely you have the ability to make your own choices and not be encouraged to do things that go against your well-being? Being alive and in constant pain is not a recipe for well-being so people should have the option to end it when life is intolerable. There’s no need for a slippery slope, as we are aware of the risks.

When you’ve had both your father and grandmother wanting VAD in their nineties but unable to access it, so instead asking for your help to achieve the desired outcome, you will realise how critical VAD is for people’s human rights when they’re desperate to find relief from pain. Denying it amounts to torture.

NegativeGhostrider9:52 am 01 Feb 24

Well said!

NegativeGhostrider9:55 am 01 Feb 24


Well said!

“On average, 34 people take their lives in the ACT each year.”
That’s ghastly. And apparently, our government’s response isn’t “oh we need to do something about this mental health crisis we have.” Instead, their response is “we need it make it easier for people to killed themselves quietly so our police officers don’t have to feel bad.

Crappy, highly biased article, RiotACT. I’m disappointed.

And I’d love to see stats on what *percentage* of these suicides are actually due to a terminal illness vs plain depression – which is a product of our terrible mental health care system.

Crappy, highly ignorant comment.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.