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Medicating Vulnerability through State Psychiatry: An Ethnography of Client Manipulation in Involuntary Outpatient Commitment

  • Author(s): Dougherty, Ryan John
  • Advisor(s): Cohen, David
  • et al.
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In mental health policy, a central ethical dilemma concerns involuntary outpatient commitment (OPC), which aims to treat vulnerable individuals with serious mental illness who decline services. The first concern regards whether coercive services undermine the quality of clinical interactions within treatment, particularly as it relates to psychiatric medication use. The second concern is the unexamined role that OPC, and coercive psychiatric programs more broadly, plays in the broader landscape of social welfare policy. To examine these concerns, the purpose of this dissertation is to analyze how the management of psychiatric medications in involuntary outpatient services is undergirded by (a) provider and client interpretations of psychiatric medications effects and (b) moral discourses related to coercion and client autonomy. To achieve this aim, I examined data from a team-based ethnography that consisted of 1000 hours of participant-observations and 56 semi-structured interviews with 20 clients, 21 providers, and 12 client family members with diverse backgrounds. I analyzed how medication compliance was discussed, monitored, and enforced in an involuntary outpatient program. My analysis demonstrates that medications were interpreted as a technology to control clinical symptoms (clinical control) though, particularly among clients, were also viewed as a method to control client mental experiences, behavioral expression, and autonomy (social control). Providers believed that medications were a necessary component of services (compulsory compliance) and could reduce client vulnerability to violence victimization and perpetration related to clinical symptoms (medicating vulnerability). To address client noncompliance, providers employed several strategies that I categorized as client manipulation. These strategies included providers, family members, and court officials strategizing ways to undermine client autonomy without clients’ knowledge (concealed collusion), deceiving clients into believing that medications were mandated when they were not (performing coercion), and minimizing the role of client consent and preferences in decision-making processes (circumventing consent). These findings demonstrate the pervasive role of manipulation to gain client medication compliance in OPC, which I named institutional coercion. They also highlight that the broader moral justifications for manipulating clients relate to their status as structurally vulnerable in their community settings and a growing relationship between the erosion of the welfare state and psychiatric coercion.

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This item is under embargo until July 12, 2022.