Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Listen, explain, involve, and evaluate: why respecting autonomy benefits suicidal patients

Samuel J. Knapp (2024)
Ethics & Behavior, 34:1, 18-27
DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2022.2152338


Out of a concern for keeping suicidal patients alive, some psychotherapists may use hard persuasion or coercion to keep them in treatment. However, more recent evidence-supported interventions have made respect for patient autonomy a cornerstone, showing that the effective interventions that promote the wellbeing of suicidal patients also prioritize respect for patient autonomy. This article details how psychotherapists can incorporate respect for patient autonomy in the effective treatment of suicidal patients by listening to them, explaining treatments to them, involving them in decisions, and inviting evaluations from them on the process and progress of their treatment. It also describes how processes that respect patient autonomy can supplement interventions that directly address some of the drivers of suicide.

Public Impact Statement

Treatments for suicidal patients have improved in recent years, in part, because they emphasize promoting patient autonomy. This article explains why respecting patient autonomy is important in the treatment of suicidal patients and how psychotherapists can integrate respect for patient autonomy in their treatments.

Dr. Knapp's article discusses the importance of respecting patient autonomy in the treatment of suicidal patients within the framework of principle-based ethics. It highlights the ethical principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, respecting patient autonomy, and professional-patient relationships. The article emphasizes the challenges psychotherapists face in balancing the promotion of patient well-being with the need to respect autonomy, especially when dealing with suicidal patients.

Fear and stress in treating suicidal patients may lead psychotherapists to prioritize more restrictive interventions, potentially disregarding the importance of patient autonomy. The article argues that actions minimizing respect for patient autonomy may reflect a paternalistic attitude, which is implementing interventions without patient consent for the sake of well-being.

The problems associated with paternalistic interventions are discussed, emphasizing the importance of patients' internal motivation to change. The article advocates for autonomy-focused interventions, such as cognitive behavior therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which have been shown to reduce suicide risk and improve outcomes. It suggests that involving patients in treatment decisions, listening to their experiences, and validating their feelings contribute to more effective interventions.

The article provides recommendations on how psychotherapists can respect patient autonomy, including listening carefully to patients, explaining treatment processes, involving patients in decisions, and inviting them to evaluate their progress. The ongoing nature of the informed consent process is stressed, along with the benefits of incorporating patient feedback into treatment. The article concludes by acknowledging the need for a balance between beneficence and respect for patient autonomy, particularly in cases of imminent danger, where temporary prioritization of beneficence may be necessary.

In summary, the article underscores the significance of respecting patient autonomy in the treatment of suicidal patients and provides practical guidance for psychotherapists to achieve this while promoting patient well-being.