Frontier ethics: mental health care needs and ethical dilemmas in rural communities

Psychiatr Serv. 1999 Apr;50(4):497-503. doi: 10.1176/ps.50.4.497.


Roughly 15 million of the 62 million rural U.S. residents struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. These rural dwellers have significant health care needs but commonly experience obstacles to obtaining adequate psychiatric services. Important but little-recognized ethical dilemmas also affect rural mental health care delivery. Six attributes of isolated settings with limited resources appear to intensify these ethical dilemmas: overlapping relationships, conflicting roles, and altered therapeutic boundaries between caregivers, patients, and families; challenges in preserving patient confidentiality; heightened cultural dimensions of mental health care; "generalist" care and multidisciplinary team issues; limited resources for consultation about clinical ethics; and greater stresses experienced by rural caregivers. The authors describe these features of rural mental health care and provide vignettes illustrating dilemmas encountered in the predominantly rural and frontier states of Alaska and New Mexico. They also outline constructive approaches to rural ethical dilemmas in mental health care.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Allied Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Burnout, Professional / psychology
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Ethics Consultation
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medically Underserved Area
  • Mental Health Services / standards*
  • Mentally Ill Persons
  • Rural Health Services / standards*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • United States
  • Workforce