Opinion: Right to Die Billboard Sends the Wrong Message

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Is this billboard irresponsible? Credit: Jerry McCrea, The Star-Ledger

A billboard in New Jersey is sending a dangerous message to kids.

The sign, on Route 22 in Hillside, N.J., reads "My Life, My Death, My Choice" and is followed by the website address for the Final Exit Network. The nonprofit organization's site says the group does not advocate for doctor-assisted suicide -- they simply provide information to people with life-threatening illnesses.

Paging Dr. Kevorkian.

Some New Jersey residents are upset because they disagree with those who believe in a "right to die with dignity." But as a parent, I have other concerns.

Final Exit's ad is irresponsible. The billboard easily could be read by depressed kids as: "Hey, if you want to check out now, it's OK. We're with you."

Childhood depression is a serious problem.

"On any single day," according to the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness," about 2 percent of school-aged children and about 8 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression." The number climbs much higher, to about 28 percent, for lesser, but still serious, forms of depression.

The statistics for those who have considered, or even attempted, suicide are equally alarming.

"About 149,000 young people were treated in emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries in 2006," reports the National Conference of State Legislatures, adding that, in 2007, 15 percent of high school students reported "having seriously considered suicide in the past year."

Imagine that you are a teenager who is severely depressed. You see the billboard. You visit Final Exit's website and see the words "a basic human right to end their lives ... intractable pain." You keep reading. "Such a right shall be an individual choice ... free of any restrictions by the law, clergy, medical profession, even friends and relatives no matter how well-intentioned."

To a teenager in the hopeless frame of mind, this could be interpreted as follows: "No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how nice they seem, even if they love you -- none of that's important. You can make a choice to end your life."

If you think the idea of someone deciding to kill themselves after reading a billboard seems kind of far-fetched, maybe you've never been depressed. There's such a phenomenon as copycat suicide. And to those suffering with depression, a simple billboard can be construed as more than a sign. To them, it's a SIGN.

Now, is the billboard specifically aimed at children? No. But that doesn't matter.

Robert Levine, vice president of Final Exit, tells CBS 2 News the group is trying to reach "people who have Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's disease, emphysema and a whole other range of wasting diseases."

If Final Exit wanted to reach adults with serious illnesses, it should have said so in a responsible manner. Instead, it placed an ad that's intentionally vague and designed to attract attention to its cause.

Along with counting how many fast-food ads kids are seeing, maybe someone should also do a study about the effect of advertising on adolescent suicide. What might a depressed teenager think when she sees a billboard that says "My Life, My Death, My Choice"?

Here's an even better idea. Final Exit should just take down their billboard before we have a chance to find out.

Related: 10 Things to Say (and Not to Say) to a Teen With Depression

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.