You are on page 1of 3


Mental illness and informed consent: seeking an empirically derived understanding of voluntarism
Laura Weiss Roberts
Department of Psychiatry, Institute for Ethics, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA Correspondence to Laura Roberts MD, Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Psychiatry, UNMHSC Institute for Ethics, MSC09 5030, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001, USA Tel: +1 505 272 3867; fax: +1 505 272 4569; e-mail: Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2003, 16:543–545
# 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 0951-7367

process, and mental status measures. Many participants did not initially perceive significant coercive pressures across two different settings (one involving a mental health court, the other a ‘conventional’ misdemeanor court arrangement), but many also did not indicate awareness of what choices and rights they actually had. The individuals in the mental health court were more positive about the judicial process and emotional impact of the hearing than were comparison participants who underwent conventional court procedures. Also related to forensic populations, Rigg [6] administered a survey and interview to 30 inmates participating in a sex offender treatment program in Canada to explore perceptions of coercion and treatment motivation. Respondents in this study indicated experiencing low levels of treatment coercion, although length of incarceration and chronological age positively correlated with perceived degree of coercion in the sex offender treatment process. Enhanced opportunities to move to less restrictive settings or to become eligible for parole due to participation in treatment were viewed as positive motivation, not as coercive external pressure, in this study. This result, related to the interface of internal and external pressures influencing one’s subjective sense of voluntarism and coercion, merits further study. In a third subpopulation, Gudjonsson et al. [7] examined the effects of alcohol withdrawal in 127 individuals undergoing detoxification with respect to psychological state, including mental status, suggestibility, confabulation, anxiety, and other measures. The authors concluded that alcohol withdrawal heightens suggestibility and interferes with an individual’s ability to cope with ‘interrogative pressure’. Similar empirical work is presently underway examining the extent of voluntarism and decisional capacities of schizophrenia and dementia research participants that is certain to yield important findings that may help determine diagnosis and staterelated vulnerability of ill persons and help build better attuned ethical safeguards. A suite of empirical studies published recently examined ethically important aspects of involuntary hospitalization of persons with mental illness highlighting distinct perspectives and methodological approaches. Zinkler and Priebe [8] performed a review of available studies on involuntary admission (‘detention’) of mentally ill

Informed consent is a practice of legal and ethical significance for persons living with mental illness [1,2]. It helps to translate the preferences and rights of autonomous persons into concrete decisions. Informed consent may occur in the context of a therapeutic relationship that is dedicated to fostering the health and best interests of the ill individual, respectfully, beneficently, and faithfully. Informed consent may also occur in relation to a research participation decision; in this context, it serves as a safeguard to ensure that the individual truly understands and freely undertakes the special task of furthering a valuable scientific endeavor, which may or may not bring some personal benefit. In both clinical and research situations, informed consent has been conceptualized as having three core components: information, decisional capacity, and voluntarism (Fig. 1). Over four decades, there have been extensive efforts to understand consent processes, giving emphasis to information-related and decisional capacity considerations [3]. In this time, relatively little attention has been given to the cardinal element of voluntarism, defined minimally as the expression of authentic choice in the absence of coercion [2]. The past year, however, has witnessed the emergence of a handful of promising evidence-based papers seeking to present a more nuanced, substantive understanding of voluntarism, which is at the heart of the informed consent process. Intriguing data-driven projects have focused on special issues related to voluntarism in subpopulations with mental illness or addictions. Poythress et al. [5], for example, performed a study involving 222 adult court defendants with known mental health issues in Florida, USA, assessing perceived coercion, perceived procedural justice, the emotional impact of the legal hearing
DOI: 10.1097/01.yco.0000087262.35258.f6

McGaha A. such as the ironic situation illustrated in different ways by both Poythress et al. Empirical research on informed consent: an annotated bibliography. Ethics and mental illness research. This work holds great promise. Papageorgiou et al. Informed consent: a study of decisionmaking in psychiatry. evidence-based studies permit us to systematically characterize the diverse experiences of people who live out the personal consequences of clinical care practices. is a self-report scale the best way to measure coercive pressure? Furthermore. Finally.6]. Roberts LW. This work suggests that hospitalization patterns are influenced by societal. Am J Psychiatry 2002. persons across Europe up to 1999.23]. [10] studied the impact of advance directives for psychiatric treatment upon compulsory readmission by performing a randomized. empirical studies highlight what may be critical conceptual lacunae. 25:525–545. Perceived coercion and procedural justice in the Broward mental health court. Ironically. The studies employ disparate. Zerubavel E. 29:S1–S42. Boothroyd R.21].6. Sugarman J. McCrory DC. were supportive of the practice of compulsory admission. et al. In addition. and attitudinal influences that may be distinguished from basic clinical phenomena associated with mental illness. New York: Guilford Press. Informed consent and the capacity for voluntarism. respondents with positive prior experiences with the field of psychiatry. [9] performed a telephone survey with 1737 individuals in Switzerland.25]. One year after discharge. an ethnic minority who is imprisoned or institutionalized and is also suffering from mental illness) for a study ironically about voluntarism and coercion in the context of informed consent? Nevertheless. or satisfaction measures across the control group and the group that had participated in psychiatric advance directive intervention. controlled trial involving 156 mentally ill inpatients. how does one ethically obtain informed consent from a person with overlapping sources of vulnerability (e. 1984. and they yield inconclusive and uncertain results [5. It is also valuable in determining whether we are actually doing what we think we are doing in our efforts to safeguard ill individuals [22. and Rigg in which one does not perceive coercion because one does not imagine even the existence of choice [5. A substantive empirical literature on informed consent across the age spectrum in mental health care and research in the context of other physical illnesses and addictive disorders is now emerging internationally [11– 16]. as well as those with negative stereotypes toward mental illness. but the projects described here also illustrate several challenges in this field [17–20]. . et al. Meisel A. inpatient length-of-stay. Petrila J.544 Forensic psychiatry Figure 1. policy. Lauber et al. For example. This is important to our fulfillment of the ethical principles of Respect for Persons and Justice. finding more than 70% supported involuntary or compulsory hospitalization of mentally ill persons who are acutely ill or potentially dangerous. empirical work represents an important tool in enhancing our understanding of mental illness and informed consent and its subtlest components. References 1 2 3 4 5 Lidz CW. Roberts LW.10. no difference was found in the numbers of involuntary or voluntary readmissions. opportunis- Acknowledgements The author gratefully acknowledges support from the National Institute of Mental Illness in the form of a Career Development Award (1K02MH01918) and from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1R01DA13139). public policy initiatives. revealing nearly 20fold variations in rates across different countries at different times. In an attitude-based study. Powell D. Hastings Cent Rep 1999. Elements of informed consent Informed consent Nature of decision Nature of relationship Voluntarism Information Developmental Dialogue/process Illness-related Rationale Psychological/cultural Risks/benefits and likelihood Contextual factors Alternatives Future choices Decisional capacity Communication Understanding Reasoning Appreciation [Adapted from 4] tic methodological approaches. These authors also offer evidence about disease processes and critical time periods that may represent heightened vulnerability (or strength) in the context of serious illness [7. 159:705–712.g. Taken together with rigorous scholarship of many forms and derived from many sources. Poythress NG. 25:517–533. Int J Law Psychiatry 2002. and societal attitudes. This information may be used to construct ‘targets’ of opportunity for the development of interventions that seek to enhance the autonomy of ill individuals [26]. Psychiatr Clin North Am 2002. This prospective study giving a ‘null result’ suggests the value of obtaining formal outcomes data prior to broad scale introduction of certain ethics safeguard practices. They raise many more scientific and ethics questions than they immediately resolve.24.

Eder M. Detention of the mentally ill in Europe: a review. Gudjonsson G. Informed consent in early psychosis research: National Institute of Mental Health Workshop. Too little.Mental illness and informed consent: editorial review Roberts 545 6 7 Rigg J. Rossler W. 26 Grisso T. et al. Psychiatr Serv 2001. Measures of perceived coercion in prison treatment settings. Advance directives for patients compulsorily admitted to hospital with serious mental illness: randomised controlled trial. Evidence-based ethics and informed consent in mental illness research. 106:3–8. Bartlett RH. 18 Royall DR. 95:1037–1044. 22 La Fond JQ. et al. 14 Hoyer G. Improving understanding of research consent disclosures among persons with mental illness. interrogative suggestibility and compliance: an experimental study. et al. Hannesdottir HP. Srebnik D. 21 Stiles PG. et al. November 15. Falcato L. Gudbjorn B. 10:142–150. Shelby R. 105:385–389. 23 Roberts L. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2002. Ethics and statistics in randomized clinical trials. Public attitude to compulsory admission of mentally ill people. J Am Geriatr Soc 2002. Int J Law Psychiatry 2002. Psychiatr Serv 2002. JAMA 2002. J Forensic Psychiatry 2002. Kjellin L. Pediatrics 2002. New York: Oxford University Press. 50:1884–1885. 57:540–542. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2000. Kerner J. Priebe S. Janmohamed A. Appelbaum PS. 16 Olechnowicz JQ. Engberg M. 27:571–583. Schizophr Bull 2001. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2002. Int J Law Psychiatry 2002. 24 Heinssen RK. 13:1–8. Stat Sci 1991. Assent observed: children’s involvement in leukemia treatment and research discussions. 2000. . Cornell RG. Reporting of informed consent and ethics committee approval in clinical trials. Int J Law Psychiatry 2002. Assessing competence to consent to treatment: a guide for physicians and other health professionals. Roberts B. 46:1025–1038. 25:537–555. Appelbaum PS. Vollmann J. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry 2002. Lindamer LA. 17 Royall RM. Nordt C. Poythress NG. Biol Psychiatry 1999. Palmer BW. Hall A. Simon C. 181:513–519. Psychiatric research ethics: an overview of evolving guidelines and current ethical dilemmas in the study of mental illness. 8 9 10 Papageorgiou A. 25:93–108. Rennie D. 52:780–785. 11 Bauer A. et al. Forrester A. Back to the future of mental capacity assessment. Improving understanding of research consent in middle-aged and elderly patients with psychotic disorders. et al. Caine ED. 287:2835–2838. The effects of alcohol withdrawal on mental state. Cancer 2002. Perkins DO. Nervenarzt 2002. 109:806–814. 13:53–67. King M. 25 Wilson S. et al. The impact of mental health advance directives on patient perceptions of coercion in civil commitment and treatment decisions. Informed consent and patient competence in the psychically ill: a review of empirical studies. 12 Kim SY. Zinkler M. 20 Yank V. Paternalism and autonomy: a presentation of a Nordic study on the use of coercion in the mental health care system. 25:473–490. 19 Roberts LW. 6:52–88. 13 Dunn LB. Lauber C. 1998. Fenton WS. too late? The treatment of mentally incapacitated prisoners. Br J Psychiatry 2002. Utility and limits of the mini mental state examination in evaluating consent capacity in Alzheimer’s disease. J Forensic Psychiatry 2002. 53:1322–1324. Impact of undergoing prostate carcinoma screening on prostate carcinoma-related knowledge and distress. 73:1031–1038. 15 Taylor KL.