Ethical issues in long-term psychiatric management

Journal of Medical Ethics 23 (5):300-304 (1997)
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Two general ethical problems in psychiatry are thrown into sharp relief by long term care. This article discusses each in turn, in the context of two anonymised case studies from actual clinical practice. First, previous mental health legislation soothed doubts about patients' refusal of consent by incorporating time limits on involuntary treatment. When these are absent, as in the provisions for long term care which have recently come into force, the justification for compulsory treatment and supervision becomes more obviously problematic. Second, Anglo-American law does not normally allow the preventive detention of someone who may be dangerous but has not actually committed any crime. The justification for detaining a possibly dangerous user of mental health services without his or her consent can only be based on risk assessment, but this raises issues of moral luck. Is the psychiatrist who decides not to take out a supervision order for a possibly dangerous patient with an initial psychotic diagnosis morally at fault if that person harms someone in the community, or himself? Or is the psychiatrist merely unlucky?
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