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Clinical Commentary

From: Asian Bioethics Review
Volume 5, Issue 3, September 2013
pp. 250-254 | 10.1353/asb.2013.0033

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Dr. G appears to experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, which is arguably the most severe mental disorder and which afflicts about one in a hundred people. This is a psychotic disorder that causes disturbances and distortions in thinking, including neurocognitive impairments, perception and behaviour. There is no cure for this often devastating disorder. Current antipsychotic medications can alleviate some of the symptoms but it often comes at a price as these antipsychotics have burdensome side effects.

A feature of this disorder is anosognosia, which is a lack of awareness or “insight” that an illness is present. This lack of insight presents a particular challenge because these individuals would, as in the case of Dr. G, refuse needed treatment as they do not perceive that they are ill. This is not necessarily an all-or-none phenomenon but is rather more complex and multidimensional; there might be an unawareness or recognition on behalf of the patient that they are suffering from a mental illness, the failure to appreciate the necessity of treatment; and/or the inability to recognise and define the psychotic symptoms like unusual thoughts and hallucinations as signs of illness and in many instances, all three are present. It is also by no means uncommon. Studies have found that between 60% and 80% of people with schizophrenia lack awareness of their illness to varying degrees.

This phenomenon remains an enigma. Some regard it as a form of psychological defence against the harsh reality of a psychotic illness — awareness of having a chronic and devastating illness might lead to demoralisation, hopelessness and suicide. Recent research, however, indicates that this psychological denial plays a small part, if any, and instead has found an association with certain neuropsychological and neurocognitive deficits, as well as functional and structural brain abnormalities in the frontal lobe of the brain.

The prevailing clinical view thus is that this is an intrinsic and organic aspect of the schizophrenic illness which has nothing to do with wilfulness but rather the incapacity to perceive the presence of the illness. Edwin Fuller Torrey, an eminent psychiatrist and executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Foundation, calls anosognosia the “single largest reason why individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not take their medications”, and he has remarked that “to keep talking about civil liberty is illogical. Patients are anything but free when they’re at the beck and call of their own delusions”.

It is also this view that it is a product of a brain disorder that some — particularly patients — find unacceptable. At one level, it does not take into context the person’s own experiences, and at a deeper level it calls into question the conception of the self with its capacity to exercise judgements and the autonomy to make decisions.

This is a perennial ethical issue in psychiatry when people with severe mental illnesses refuse treatment. This becomes a Catch-22 situation where part of the illness that needs treatment is also preventing any treatment to be given: implicit in the principle of informed consent for treatment is that the person should be aware of the nature and course of their illness and acknowledge the need for treatment. While there are laws for involuntary commitment, the bar is usually high in that there must be a clear and present risk of harm to the person or others. Alan Stone, a professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard University proposed a possible justification for involuntary treatment based on his “thank-you theory” which assumes that patients will become well and subsequently agree that the intervention was in their best interests but research suggests that only half of these patients would admit so.

One suggested mechanism is the use of advance directives — psychiatry’s version of the living will in which people can specify what sort of medical care they would like should they become mentally unwell and unable to exercise appropriate judgement. An intrinsic part of this might include a “Ulysses contract” — just as Ulysess instructed his crew to lash him to the mast of the his ship so that he could listen but not be lured by the Sirens, people can give advanced instructions that they be treated...



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