The contested freedom of the ‘scary’ – Karlijn Roex

The contested freedom of the ‘scary’: the use of coercion in psychiatry violates basic human rights

Detention, solitary confinement, forced drugging; throughout history, societies have had the tendency to aggressively constrain people with psycho-social disabilities and preferred an security-obsessed instrumentalism above universal human rights. But recently, the use of coercion in psychiatry is a highly debated practice in human rights circles; witness the latest report of Human Rights Watch[1] on shackling. This increased interest has gotten a great impulse by the recent release of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Drawing upon scientific work, ‘user’ narratives and moral principles, I support the call made by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to abandon the use of coercion in psychiatry.

According to authoritative documents of the Convention[2], the use of coercion in psychiatry is a form of discrimination of people with psycho-social disabilities, and violates the right of these people to enjoy autonomy and personal integrity. These principles are to be respected, regardless of any instrumental benefits that may result from applying coercive psychiatric interventions. But the perceived instrumental benefits are exactly why the use of coercion in psychiatry has long gone uncontested. And these benefits have moral significance too. People have the right to be protected against themselves, or against dangerous fellow-humans. In fact, many proponents of coercion in psychiatry follow this ethical ‘lesser evil’ reasoning. According to them, it is allowed to introduce an evil when a greater evil is prevented by this. Thus, such a lesser evil argument justifies the abandonment of some key fundamental human rights. This is dangerous, because human rights are typically abandoned during the times in which they are most needed[3]. In fact, these human rights are meant to protect our scapegoated minorities from being oppressed during times of public fear. In times of public fear, some human rights become a privilege of the non-scary, or if one prefers, of the ‘respectable section of society’[4]. In the context here, the lucky ones are the people without psycho-social disabilities. The scary, by contrast, have to deal with a contested freedom.

Coercive psychiatric interventions are decisions or actions imposed on the individual, without his/ her informed consent, based on psycho-social disability. In this regard, the CRPD has also come out against the use of this danger standard, or any other criteria, as a way of legitimizing psychiatric detention[5]. To be clear, the coercive interventions that are discussed here are not taken because of a criminal suspicion or criminal conviction. Today, most countries allow coercive psychiatric interventions only when an individual is considered dangerous to him-/herself or to others. However, the initial assessment of dangerousness is taken by psychiatrists only. A court is not yet involved in this initial decision to psychiatrically detain an individual. This is highly problematic, because the psychiatric perspective and security-obsessed instrumentalism are clearly dominating the process of key decision making, at the cost of the human rights perspective. At the moment where the psychiatrists’ initial decision is critically reviewed, marks of shame have already been added to the affected individual. Not only has this mark of shame been added through the unfavourable initial psychiatric guess, which gains much epistemological authority in our societies, but also because of the very stigmatizing practice of the detention itself[6]. It is then much harder for the affected individual to win credibility.

We therefore see that the conditions for coercive psychiatric interventions have become stricter over time, but that they fail to seriously challenge the practice of arbitrary detention. This may explain why the ‘stricter’ danger standard has not led to a decrease in the number of psychiatric detentions[7]. Probably, the innovation has rather served to silence any critical voices from the human rights corner. This silencing has been achieved by incorporating insignificant parts of the critical demands into the existing policy, without meaningfully changing any inherently oppressive and discriminatory principles[8]. Apparently, there is a high demand in society to confine people with psycho-social disabilities, and one of the main drivers behind this demand is a perceived danger.

Protecting people against themselves: the right not to be a false positive[9]

But what is wrong with this dangerous-criterion? Is it, for instance, not our moral duty to protect people from themselves when needed? Obviously, it is! But we should become reflect one more moment about our ability to assess mental states: when is someone to be considered a danger to him-/ herself? Let me take suicide as an example. As a researcher in this topic, the literature clearly shows me that assessing the risk of suicide in individuals is a very difficult task. Most people that disclosure suicidal thoughts do not commit suicide, especially women[10]. Secondly, psychiatric risk assessments are proven to be really unreliable[11], leading to many ‘false positives’: people who are considered a danger while they are actually not. The statement whether someone is a danger, is in fact a hypothesis about mental states and future behaviours. These are unobservable things that are hard to measure. Even when an individual has committed self-harming acts in the past, this does not necessarily make him dangerous for the present, or the future. Test results are likely to be biased and steered by common prejudices about people with psycho-social disabilities[12], ethnic minorities, and the poor[13]. Worse, the dangerousness claim is strictly not falsifiable, at least at a short term: how can one prove today that one will not kill himself soon? As a consequence of this, many individuals are subjected to coercive interventions because they were wrongly labelled as ‘dangerous’ and cannot easily escape this label. Escaping the dangerousness-label is made even more difficult by general mistrusting attitudes of hospital staff towards mental patients[14], and the fact that people tend to start behaving conform the stigma over time, due to its adverse effects on them[15]. The accumulation of humiliating interactions, which would frustrate every normal person, can lead to responses that can be termed as ‘aggressive’. How would you respond if you learn that you were wrongly informed about your legal status[16] concerning something as important as your freedom?

These ‘false positives’ are vulnerable people, just like people who are a real danger to themselves. But is it actually a wise strategy to expose such people to some of the very traumatic coercive psychiatric interventions? There are numerous accounts of patients or ‘ex-users’ of psychiatry that indicate how stressful and traumatic these interventions were to them. Indeed, some human rights advocates define some of these interventions as torture. There are even indications that exposure to such interventions can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms and suicide[17]. There are user narratives that indicate that individuals without any previous suicidal tendencies became suicidal after being exposed to coercive interventions, such as solitary confinement. User narratives indicate how humiliating these experiences can be, with people losing their personal integrity, humanity and dignity. Affected individuals often carry along these feelings until long after the incidents.

Protecting people against their dangerous fellow-citizens: contesting the freedom of the ‘Other’

But what if a person is not a danger to him-/ herself, but to others? When we want to be protected against our dangerous fellow-citizens, then what is morally wrong with that? Well, nothing, but of course we have to come with reasonable grounds and evidence of this supposed danger. The mere existence of a psycho-social disorder, cannot point towards a certain danger. When an individual tells me that he is going to harm me, he can be prosecuted for threats. Most countries have also criminalized several public order disturbances. We can already prosecute anybody who has visibly undertaken preparations for committing a criminal offense, or who has clearly tried to commit a certain crime. Therefore: we already have a great law that protects us against dangerous fellow-citizens: the Criminal Law! Even greater, this law protects the citizen against the state and an over-feared community. We cannot just convict an individual because of a mere suspicion; instead, conviction requires that we have some tangible evidence against this individual.

With this great law in mind, why would we create another law especially for people with psycho-social disabilities? Because we are afraid of people with psycho-social disabilities. A mere suspicion of dangerousness in a person with mental illness is already terrifying enough, isn’t it? Why then bother about visible evidence for a criminal conviction? Mental health laws are the dubious innovation of a frightened society. These laws enable communities to incarcerate individuals with psycho-social disabilities when we suspect that they are dangerous. This suspicion is backed with test results from, again, very unreliable and biased psychiatric risk-assessments. As a consequence, we have created two types of citizenship: the ‘normal’ citizens and the scary semi-citizens. The latter group has found his freedom contested: it can be denied at any time, as soon as a suspicion of dangerousness arises. Whereas the majority of us can feel safe and count on the basic human rights principles that respect our freedom and integrity, there is a group in our society whose members can simply be detained without the regular battery of legal requirements.

This is an inconvenient leak in our modern democracies, and should concern every citizen. No citizen can find himself guaranteed at the ‘right’ side of the divide, because the boundaries between mental illness and normality are time-dependent and not nature-given. In the past, we have seen the ‘psychiatrization’ of homosexuality, political dissent, and poverty. This teaches us that mental health laws are a convenient way to subtly discipline certain categories of people; much more smoothly and subtly than explicitly prosecuting these deviants through criminal courts[18]. And although our societies are now to be considered ‘free-minded’, or ‘post-modern’, we should always be aware of the disciplinary potential of mental health laws. This disciplinary potential can be toxic in combination with the timeless fact that we are never aware of the oppressive ideas of our own time.

In all, let’s give it a shot and abandon the use of coercion in psychiatry towards history. Fear makes that we immediately grab towards the so-called ‘last resort’ of a coercive intervention, whereas there are instances in which a simple conversation would already help. Such a conversation would also help us, learning about the specific and different logics behind madness, and therefore render it a little bit less unpredictable and scary.

Karlijn Roex is a PhD-candidate in Sociology and human rights activist. She lives in Germany.

[1] Human Rights Watch (2016, March 20). Indonesia: Treating Mental Health With Shackles. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 21 March 2016, from:

[2] See for instance: CRPD. (2015). Guidelines on Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – The right to liberty and security of persons with disabilities. New York: United Nations; CRPD. (2014). General Comment No. 1 (2014). Article 12: Equal Recognition Before the Law. New York: United Nations; United Nations Human Rights Committee (2015, October 10). Dignity must prevail – An appeal to do away with non-consensual psychiatric treatment World Mental Health Day. United Nations. Retrieved 10 March 2016, from:

[3] Hudson, B. (2009). Justice in a Time of Terror. British journal of Criminology, Delinquency and Deviant Social Behaviour, 5(49), 702-717; Roex, K.L. A. & Riezen, Van. B. (2012). Counter-Terrorism in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom: A Comparative Literature Review Study. Social Cosmos, 3(1), 97-110.

[4] Berger, P.L. (1992). Sociology as a Form of Consciousness. In H. Robboy & C. Clark (edit.), Social Interaction. Readings in Sociology (pp. 6-22). Richmond: Worth Publishers.

[5] See for example CRPD. (2015). Guidelines on Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – The right to liberty and security of persons with disabilities. New York: United Nations.

[6] Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books; Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders. New York: The Free Press.

[7] At least in Europe. See: Salize, H. J., Dressing, H. & Peitz, M. (2002). Compulsory Admission and Involuntary Treatment of Mentally Ill Patients – Legislation and Practice in EU-Member States. Brussels: European Commission.

[8] This strategy to silence critics is widely analysed by the Foucaultian sociologist Mathiesen: Mathiesen, T. (2004). Silently Silenced. Essays on the Creation of Acquiescence in Modern Society. Winchester: Waterside Press. See also on this specific topic: Harding ,T.W. (2000): Human Rights Law in the Field of Mental Health: a Critical Review. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 101: 24-30

[9] Borrowed from Steadman, H. J. (1980). The Right Not to be A False Positive: Problems in the Application of the Dangerousness Standard. Psychiatric Quarterly, 2, 84-99.

[10] Cannetto, S. S. & Sakinosky, I. (1998). The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior, 28(1), 1-23 and Möller-Leimkühler, A. M. (2003). The Gender Gap in Suicide and Premature Death or: Why Are Men So Vulnerable? Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosc, 253: 1-8.

[11] Steadman, H. J. (1980). The Right Not to be A False Positive: Problems in the Application of the Dangerousness Standard. Psychiatric Quarterly, 2, 84-99; Madsen T, Agerbo E, Mortensen PB, Nordentoft M (2012) Predictors of psychiatric inpatient suicide: a national prospective register-based study. J Clin Psychiatry 73:144–151; Steeg S, Kapur N, Webb R, Applegate E, Stewart SL, Hawton K, Bergen H, Waters K, Cooper J (2012) The development of a population-level clinical screening tool for self-harm repetition and suicide: the ReACT self-harm rule. Psychol Med 42:2383–2394; Ryan C, Nielssen O, Paton M, Large M (2010) Clinical decisions in psychiatry should not be based on risk assessment. Australas Psychiatry 18:398–403.

[12] Link et al., (1999).Public Conceptions of Mental Illness: Labels, Causes, Dangerousness, and Social Distance. American Journal of Public Health, 89(9), 1328-1333; Perscosolido, et al. (2013). The ‘Backbone’ of Stigma: Identifying the Global Core of Public Prejudice Associated With Mental Illness. American Journal of Public Health, 103(5), 853-860.

[13] The population of involuntarily hospitalized psychiatric patients contains an overrepresentation of low-income indiivduals, black people, and people of an ethnic minority. See for example: Salize, H. J., Dressing, H. & Peitz, M. (2002). Compulsory Admission and Involuntary Treatment of Mentally Ill Patients – Legislation and Practice in EU-Member States. Brussels: European Commission.

[14] Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

[15] Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders. New York: The Free Press.

[16] Something that appears to happen quite often in EU countries: see Salize et al. (2002)

[17] For instance: Large, M. M. & Ryan, C. (2014). Disturbing Findings about the Risk of Suicide and Psychiatric Hospitals. Soc Psychiatr Epidemiol, 49, 1353-1355.

[18] See also the different works of Michèl Foucault on this

3 thoughts on “The contested freedom of the ‘scary’ – Karlijn Roex

  1. Pingback: Hearing Voices NYC

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