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  • Ethics Commentary
  • Michael Robertson, Senior Research Fellow

The French philosopher Michel Foucault once recounted the story of the English King, George III, being restrained by his guards at the direction of his physician Dr. Willis. King George, presumably deranged by a psychotic mania consequent upon porphyria, was incapable of self-rule and his power was usurped by the medical profession in an act of coercion tantamount to treason. This for Foucault was a profound metaphor of psychiatric power.1

The plight of Mdm. W yokes the two most emotive issues in psychiatry — involuntary treatment and the administration of ECT. Whilst only utilised at an extremity of clinical practice, both of these are the most misunderstood of actions performed by the psychiatric profession. Yet, in many circumstances, they are life-saving.

In essence, we are confronted with a profoundly depressed woman, whose illness is seemingly resistant to first line treatment and poses a serious, credible risk of harm. Most psychiatrists would regard this as somewhat of a psychiatric emergency. We are informed that Mdm. W’s family has transcended any cultural taboos about mental illness and is engaged in her care, has an extensive lived experience of her severe mood disorder and accepts, indeed welcomes, the use of ECT to terminate a severe episode of depression. In the course of a psychotic depression, Mdm. W is suffering profound distress and presents a risk of either suicide or serious medical complications if the episode persists. Despite the minimal discomfort during the actual administration of ECT, Mdm. W’s distress will be compounded by the further restraint needed to prevent from her eating and drinking prior to anaesthesia.

It is difficult to know what Mdm. W’s experience of this situation would [End Page 230] be. Through the prism of her disturbed mental state, with its derangements in thinking, cognitive functioning and apprehension of reality, she would likely experience the situation as one of fear or terror; she would likely interpret ECT and the enforced restriction of oral intake prior to the procedure as punitive — further evidence of her “sins”, reinforcing her delusional guilt and nihilism. Yet to speak to Mdm. W in circumstances of euthymia or normal mood, where such derangements no longer occur, might reveal an utterly different perspective on the situation. Like many people with episodic mental illnesses, Mdm. W might, when such a scenario was put to her, consent to future treatment with ECT without equivocation. Indeed, many patients with bipolar disorder formulate advance directives in regard to the specific management of their possible future episodes of illness.

If the clinical and legal aspects of this situation are so clear, why is there a sense of a dilemma in the realm of clinical ethics? Beyond the emotive nature of the situation, we see a deeply distressed woman being provided potentially life-saving treatment, which is being denied to her by the profound impairments of insight and judgement consequent upon her illness.

In Singapore, such detention and enforced treatment under the Mental Capacity Act (2010) applies to a person with a mental illness or disorder who lacks capacity to make decisions in their own best interests based upon impairment of mind or brain. This would be considered a “capacity” based mental health law. In other jurisdictions, the legal test and evidentiary justification for such care may be predicated upon risk of harm to self or others. In either setting, Mdm. W’s clinical situation provides adequate legal justification for such enforced care.

The moral justification of such laws falls into two general categories — the “risk” argument and the “capacity” argument. In mental health legislation, the “harm principle”, as first elaborated in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty,2 is usually defined in terms of the construct of “risk”. Risk is a term that has multiple meanings in different disciplinary contexts, although all approaches to “risk” attempt to apply knowledge to an area of uncertainty.3 The notion of “risk assessment” is usually considered as the process of categorising individuals by their perceived likelihood of causing serious harm to themselves or harm to others. In the insurance industry, actuarial assessment is a mathematical discipline aimed at computing a probability of adversity...


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pp. 230-234
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2017
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