What Is the Role of Ethics in Psychiatry?

Lainie Petersen

Adherence to professional ethics in psychiatry is crucial to protecting the civil rights of patients, the integrity of the profession and the health of those who are served by psychiatrists. Professional organizations in several jurisdictions have worked to establish ethical standards that can protect both practitioners as well as consumers of mental health services. By adhering to these ethics in psychiatry, both physicians and patients alike can benefit by understanding the ethical obligations of psychiatrists and addressing being able to address violations of patient’s rights or the failure of a psychiatrist to perform his or her professional responsibilities.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who treat mental illnesses.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who treat mental illnesses.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues in their patients and have typically been certified in their specialty by a recognized professional organization. The duties of a psychiatrist vary, but typically include evaluating the mental state of patients, providing psychotherapy and prescribing psychiatric drugs. In many jurisdictions, psychiatrists are often called upon to the mental state of an individual to determine whether he or she is competent to make decisions for him or herself. Courts may rely heavily on the recommendation of psychiatrists with regards to whether an adult is culpable for crime or should be placed under the care of a guardian. Since these issues have a significant effect on both public safety and individual civil rights, it is important that psychiatrist adhere to established ethics in psychiatry while making these determinations.

Because of the nature of the relationship between a psychotherapist and her clients, privacy plays a major ethical role.
Because of the nature of the relationship between a psychotherapist and her clients, privacy plays a major ethical role.

In some cases, a psychiatrist may have a more significant and intimate relationship with patients than other types of physicians. This is because some psychiatrists offer ongoing psychotherapy services to clients that involve meetings that take place on a weekly basis and require a significant degree of disclosure and trust on the part of the patient. Since the therapeutic relationship can go on for several years, and in some cases even decades, ethical guidelines have been established by many professional organizations that describe the types of boundaries that must be respected by psychiatrists when dealing with their patients. These boundaries protect both parties from the development of inappropriate relationships and obligations to each other.

Another area of ethics in psychiatry that is of significant concern in the 21st century is the prescribing of psychiatric medications. The development of new pharmaceutical treatments for mental health issues requires psychiatrists to establish strong standards for safe research methods. In addition, lawmakers in some jurisdictions demand greater disclosure on the part of psychiatrists that prescribe these drugs, including a willingness to document whether pharmaceutical salespeople have provided the psychiatrist with incentives to prescribe a particular medication.

Many jurisdictions operate commissions that investigate violations of ethics in psychiatry. Individuals who believe that a particular physician has behaved unethically can bring charges against the doctor to this committee. The commission is then responsible for reviewing the case, as well as pertinent ethical standards before rendering judgment. Psychiatrists who violate these standards can be disciplined, which may include a suspension or evocation of licensure.

Psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication to their patients.
Psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication to their patients.

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Discussion Comments


@SteamLouis-- Sexual relations with a patient is also unethical. This holds true even if the person is a former patient.

This is sometimes a controversial issue because I have heard of doctors marrying their patients. I'm not sure if marriage between a psychiatrist and his or her patient is also considered unethical.


@SteamLouis-- I think that there are many types of behavior by psychiatrists that may be considered unethical. The only example that comes to mind offhand is the Stanford prison experiment which was carried out by a psychology professor in the 1970s.

In the experiment, students who had volunteered for the experiment were assigned roles as prisoner or guard. They had to stay at a make-shift "prison" and get into their role. The goal of the experiment was to understand the relationship between guards and prisoners.

Unfortunately, the students got too carried away. The students who were playing guard started mistreating the students playing prisoner. The professor who became to caught up in the experiment did not end it when he should have. I think that was unethical on the part of the professor. If a psychologist or psychiatrist causes intentional harm to patients, physically or psychologically, that's definitely unethical behavior.


What exactly is unethical behavior on the part of a psychiatrist? Can anyone give an example?

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