The argument that is usually made against involuntary commitment and forced treatment is that these actions, under the authority of a state, violate a person’s basic civil rights. They deprive a person of liberty and personal autonomy, and do so in the absence of a criminal charge. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities upholds that position by prohibiting discrimination in relation to these rights. That is a morally powerful argument, and it should stand at the center of any protest against forced treatment.
However, there is another argument, one of adjunctive value, that can be made against involuntary commitment and forced treatment. Medical science argues against forced treatment too.
The “state,” in order to justify involuntary commitment and forced treatment, will argue that such coercion is necessary to provide “medical treatment” to individuals who, because of their impaired state of mind, won’t give their consent to such treatment. The implication is that if the “psychotic” individual were of sound mind, he or she would want this treatment, and thus the state is serving as a helpful guardian. But this “medical” argument falls apart upon close examination.
First, there is evidence that psychiatric hospitalization itself—whether voluntary or involuntary—leads to an increased risk of suicide. In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of Copenhagen looked at the psychiatric care received by 2,429 individuals in the year before they committed suicide, and after matching this group of completed suicides to a control group of 50,323 people in the general population, and after making adjustments for risk factors, they concluded that the risk of dying from suicide rose as people received increasing levels of psychiatric care. Taking psychiatric medications was associated with a six-fold increased likelihood that people would kill themselves; contact with a psychiatric outpatient clinic with an eight-fold increase; visiting a psychiatric emergency room with a 28-fold increase; and admission to a psychiatric hospital a 44-fold increase.
In an editorial that accompanied the article, which was published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, the writers—all experts in suicide research—observed that these were robust findings. The Danish study, they wrote, “demonstrated a statistically strong and dose-dependent relationship between the extent of psychiatric treatment and the probability of suicide. This relationship is stepwise, with significant increases in suicide risk occurring with increasing levels of psychiatric treatment.” This link was so strong, they concluded, that “it would seem sensible, for example, all things being equal, to regard a non-depressed person undergoing psychiatric review in the emergency department as at far greater risk [of suicide] than a person with depression, who has only ever been treated in the community.”
These researchers concluded that it is “entirely plausible that the stigma and trauma inherent in (particularly involuntary) psychiatric treatment might, in already vulnerable individuals, contribute to some suicides. We believe that it is likely that a proportion of people who suicide during or after an admission to hospital do so because of factors inherent in that hospitalization.”[ii]
Second, from a medical point of view, the “therapeutic relationship” between “patient” and “doctor” is understood to be an important factor to a “good outcome,” and forced treatment regularly leads to a breakdown in that relationship. The personal accounts of people who have been forcibly treated regularly compare it to torture, rape, and so forth. Moreover, these accounts cannot be dismissed as the writings of people who are “impaired” in their thinking, either at the time or later; such personal accounts often reveal an extraordinary level of detail and clarity.
Third, forced treatment regularly involves injections of an antipsychotic, and such initial treatment is regularly a precursor to long-term treatment with such drugs (and often in a coercive manner). However, there is now substantial evidence that such drug treatment over the long term does harm. For instance:
- There is evidence that the drugs shrink brain volumes, with this shrinkage associated with an increase in negative symptoms, functional impairment, and cognitive decline.[iii]
- The drugs induce tardive dyskinesia in a significant percentage of patients, which reflects permanent damage having been done to the basal ganglia.
- Martin Harrow, in his longitudinal study of psychotic patients, found that medicated patients fared worse over the long-term on every domain of functioning. The medicated patients were eight times less likely to be in recovery at the end of 15 years than those off the medication.[iv]
This is simply a quick review of the medical case that can be made against forced treatment. But even this cursory review tells of treatment that increases the risk of suicide, can prove devastating to the “therapeutic relationship,” and may set a person onto a long-term course of medication use that has been found to be associated with a variety of harms and poor outcomes. As such, the argument that involuntary commitment and forced treatment are in the best “medical” interest of the “impaired” person falls apart when viewed through this scientific lens, and once it does, involuntary commitment and forced treatment can be clearly seen for what they are.
They are not a means for providing necessary “medical help” to an individual. They are an assertion of state authority and power over an individual, and that assertion of authority violates the person’s fundamental civil rights. Any societal discussion of involuntary commitment and forced treatment needs to focus on that issue, and not be distracted by the “medically helpful” claim.
[ii] M. Large. Disturbing findings about the risk of suicide and psychiatric hospitals. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatry Epidemiol (2014) 49:1353-55.
[iii] J. Radua, “Multimodal meta-analysis of structural and functional changes in first episode psychosis and the effects of antipsychotic medications,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review 36 (2012): 2325–33.
[iv] M. Harrow. “Factors involved in outcome and recovery in schizophrenia patients not on antipsychotics medications.” J Nerv Ment Dis (2007) 195: 407-414.
This blog is a contribution to the Campaign to Support the CRPD Absolute Prohibition of Commitment and Forced Treatment. To see all of the Mad in America blogs for this campaign click here.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.