Some of the most ethically challenging cases in mental health care involve providing treatment to individuals who refuse that treatment. Sometimes when persons with mental illness become unsafe to themselves or others, they must be taken, despite their outward and often vigorous refusal, to an emergency department or psychiatric hospital to receive treatment, such as stabilizing psychotropic medication. On occasion, to provide medical care over objection, a patient must be physically restrained.
The modifier “involuntary” is generally used to describe these cases. For example, it is said that a patient has been involuntarily hospitalized or is receiving involuntary medication ostensibly because the patient did not consent and was forced or strongly coerced into treatment. Importantly, a person may be involuntarily hospitalized but retain the right to refuse treatment. “Involuntary” is also used to describe instances when an individual is committed to outpatient treatment by a court. The fact that a person is being treated involuntarily raises numerous challenges; it raises concerns about protecting individual liberty, respect for patient autonomy, and the specter of past abuses of patients in psychiatric institutions.
Although it has become both a clinical colloquialism and legal touchstone, the concept of involuntary treatment is used imprecisely to describe all instances in which a patient has refused the treatment he or she subsequently receives. In some cases, a patient outwardly refuses treatment but may have previously expressed a desire to be treated in crisis or, according to a reasonable evaluator, he or she would have agreed to accept stabilizing treatment, such as antipsychotic medication. A similar scenario occurs in the treatment of individuals who experience a first episode of psychosis and who outwardly refuse treatment. With no prior experience of what it is like to have psychosis, these patients are unable to develop informed preferences about treatment in advance of their first crisis. In these cases, some believe it is reasonable to provide treatment despite the opposition of the patient, although this could be debated.