The practice of psychiatry is fraught with uncertainty. The exact causes and the biological substrates underlying mental disorders remain to be elucidated; even the diagnosis of these disorders is descriptive and not based on an etiological understanding and no biological diagnostic markers have been validated. The manifestation of almost all mental disorders results from a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors which encompasses the patient’s unique life history, experiences and relationship with others and the community. In the face of such uncertainties — at times extending to the types of treatment (psychiatry is generally acknowledged not be an exact science) — it has been argued that adopting a pragmatic approach is necessary.1 Accordingly, this approach necessitates high ethical standards among mental health practitioners.
Some mental illnesses are associated with varying degrees and types of cognitive impairments. Others have certain symptoms like auditory hallucinations and delusions that might severely compromise the patients’ autonomy, distort their sense of reality, increase the risk of harm to themselves or others and render them incapable of making informed decisions in their treatment and participation in research.
Consequently, there are issues that are particular to the provision of mental healthcare. These include the need for enforced involuntary treatment with the corollary of depriving a patient of his personal liberty even [End Page 173] though it is often justified on the grounds that it is in the patient’s best interests. However, at times, it is the legal and societal obligation of mental health practitioners to protect those who might be harmed from the patient’s action that might seem to be more pressing. In this situation of double agency, lies the tension of providing confidential care for patients and acting as “an agent of the state” where that patient’s confidentiality might be breached and his liberty infringed upon. This situation is further aggravated by the stigma that clings ever so tenaciously to those who suffer from mental disorders and where it is the norm to stereotype them as dangerous and unpredictable.
Consideration of a patient’s autonomy is also challenged by characteristics that are unique to the practice of psychiatry. The prescription of certain psychotropic medications can alter how people think and feel, while psychotherapy works towards changing the patient’s views and values. The philosopher, Jennifer Radden, describes this process as “re-forming the patient’s whole self or character … akin to the responsibilities of raising children”.2 The psychotherapeutic relationship is thus particularly personal and intimate because patients are asked to provide information that often reveals their innermost feelings, fears and fantasies. This information is provided on the basis of trust and assurance of confidentiality, and with expectation of being helped.
Jeremy Holmes and Gwen Adshead have elaborated on the vulnerability of patients seeking psychotherapy: they might be particularly susceptible to exploitation because their past experiences of being exploited have led to their distress and help seeking — their dependency and the extreme privacy of the therapeutic relationship make any transgression difficult to be uncovered.3 There is a calamitous combination of the “unconscious wish in the patient to be used” with the complicity of an unethical therapist seeking to fulfil his own interests.4
As in any other doctor-patient relationship, the relationship between the mental healthcare practitioner and the patient is one of unequal power where the former is ascendant. While that power should be exercised to heal and to relieve suffering, it also gives the practitioner tremendous power “to harm, reject, misunderstand, or exploit patients who struggle with the experience of mental illness, which itself may generate helplessness, despair, distress, and exceptional dependence on the clinician”.5 Given the potential of doing good and harm coupled with the likelihood of being so significant in the life of the patient,6 providing care for those with mental disorders and distress is necessarily ethically exacting — arguably more so than in other medical practice settings. [End Page 174]
This precariousness has led to the suggestion that ethics in psychiatry should have a special status and that the more general principles of biomedical ethics are too limited in scope to...