The Balancing Act: Psychiatrists' Experience of Moral Distress
Austin, Wendy J.
Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 2008 March; 11(1): 89-97
Experiences of moral distress encountered in psychiatric practice were explored in a hermeneutic phenomenological study. Moral distress is the state experienced when moral choices and actions are thwarted by constraints. Psychiatrists describe struggling 'to do the right thing' for individual patients within a societal system that places unrealistic demands on psychiatric expertise. Certainty on the part of the psychiatrist is an expectation when judgments of dangerousness and/or the need for coercive treatments are made. This assumption, however, ignores the uncertainty and complexity of reality. Society entrusts psychiatrists to care for and treat those among its most vulnerable members: persons deemed to have a severely diminished capacity for autonomy due to a mental disorder. Simultaneously, psychiatrists are held accountable by society for the protection of the public. Moral distress arose for psychiatrists in their efforts to fulfill both roles. They described an 'outsider/insider' status and the ways in which they attempted to cope with moral distress.
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