Penn ethicist proposes new category for psychiatric patients to justify instances of compulsory treatment

August 24, 2017

The "involuntary treatment" of unwilling psychiatric patients has long been accepted as necessary in some cases, for the sake of patients and society, though it can raise serious ethical concerns as well as legal barriers. In a Viewpoint essay published online today in JAMA, Dominic Sisti, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that some of the concerns about treating patients without their consent would be alleviated if the mental health profession recognized an important distinction among these cases.

"The current strict limitations on involuntary risk allowing people with psychiatric illness to go untreated and experience worsening symptoms despite compelling evidence that they would want to be well," said Sisti, who is also the director of the director of Penn's Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics in Behavioral Health Care, and an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Penn. "A patient may have previously expressed a wish to be treated while in crisis—in which case, a treatment framed as involuntary is actually something else. The proposed concept of nonvoluntary treatment provides a more precise categorization of such cases."

Sisti suggests using the term, and treating accordingly, in situations where there is compelling evidence that patients would approve treatment if their judgment were not impaired by their illness.

Patients covered by this concept would include those who have expressly indicated a desire to be treated when needed, those who have been living successfully in recovery from mental illness and clearly wish to continue doing so, and those who have difficulty escaping severe drug addiction despite an evident wish to become addiction-free.

The "nonvoluntary" category could also cover patients presenting with their first psychotic episode—due to undiagnosed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example—who essentially have no idea what is happening to them.

"With no prior experience of psychosis, these patients have not been able to develop informed preferences about treatment," Sisti said.

The evidence to justify nonvoluntary treatment could include advance directives already provided by the patient to caregivers, as well as testimony from family members, case managers, and primary caregivers—and even the patient's own social media posts.

The nonvoluntary treatment concept would still involve a degree of ethical risk, as the evidence of a patient's authentic wishes might be ambiguous. But, Sisti said, this challenge is not much different than those found in other areas of medicine where a patient seems incapacitated and caregivers and must use their own judgment concerning patient care. Moreover, there is potentially much greater harm in not treating these very sick compared to providing nonvoluntary treatment.

The burden of , including disorders that could trigger hospitalization, remains very high in the United States. Psychosis-causing disorders alone afflict several percent of the population—more than ten million people. The National Institute of Mental Health also has estimated that about 100,000 people every year in the United States have a first episode of psychosis.

Explore further: Bioethicists call for return to asylums for long-term psychiatric care

More information: Nonvoluntary Psychiatric Treatment Is Distinct From Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment, JAMA. Published online August 24, 2017. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2017.10318 , http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2652427

Related Stories

Bioethicists call for return to asylums for long-term psychiatric care

January 21, 2015
As the United States population has doubled since 1955, the number of inpatient psychiatric beds in the United States has been cut by nearly 95 percent to just 45,000, a wholly inadequate equation when considering that there ...

Who should treat patients with opioid use disorder?

July 11, 2017
In a Point/Counterpoint, two doctors debate whether or not family physicians should provide medication-assisted treatment to their patients with opioid use disorder.

Costs of treating patients with psychosis change significantly as they age

December 12, 2016
Treating psychotic illnesses cost the province of Ontario, Canada just under $2.1 billion in 2012, which was about four per cent of the total provincial health budget, according to a new study from the Institute for Clinical ...

Treating cancer, mental health neglect in rural America

December 8, 2016
Jennifer Lycette, M.D., understands the importance of treating patients with cancer at home in their in rural communities. It allows them to spend more time with their families and to focus on their treatment and recovery, ...

Study reveals ethnic differences in mental illness severity when hospitalized

August 17, 2016
Chinese and South Asian patients in Ontario experience more severe mental illness at the time of hospital admission than other patients, according to a new study that examined the association between illness severity and ...

Clinicians should address needs of family caregivers of persons with dementia

December 5, 2016
More than 15 million family members and other unpaid caregivers provide care to persons living with dementia in the United States. Yet the current healthcare environment and reimbursement models emphasize obligations toward ...

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

TreatSMI
not rated yet Aug 25, 2017
This is a wonderful idea! I am a family member of someone who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and, as a symptom of his illness, also suffers from anosognosia. He has been hospitalized 43 times over the course of his illness and all but one of those hospitalizations was involuntary. I'm just wondering, how do you think the "nonvoluntary treatment" method for getting someone who needs treatment would play out with someone who, though certainly wishes to remain well in the community, never agrees that he indeed has a mental illness and never wishes to take medication for his illness even when he is well? Considering the fact that roughly 50% of those suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also suffer from anosognosia and anosognosia is the number one reason why folks with this disorder refuse medication, this is a major barrier to obtaining treatment.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.