Depression and decision-making capacity for treatment or research: a systematic review

BMC Med Ethics. 2013 Dec 13;14:54. doi: 10.1186/1472-6939-14-54.


Background: Psychiatric disorders can pose problems in the assessment of decision-making capacity (DMC). This is so particularly where psychopathology is seen as the extreme end of a dimension that includes normality. Depression is an example of such a psychiatric disorder. Four abilities (understanding, appreciating, reasoning and ability to express a choice) are commonly assessed when determining DMC in psychiatry and uncertainty exists about the extent to which depression impacts capacity to make treatment or research participation decisions.

Methods: A systematic review of the medical ethical and empirical literature concerning depression and DMC was conducted. Medline, EMBASE and PsycInfo databases were searched for studies of depression and consent and DMC. Empirical studies and papers containing ethical analysis were extracted and analysed.

Results: 17 publications were identified. The clinical ethics studies highlighted appreciation of information as the ability that can be impaired in depression, indicating that emotional factors can impact on DMC. The empirical studies reporting decision-making ability scores also highlighted impairment of appreciation but without evidence of strong impact. Measurement problems, however, looked likely. The frequency of clinical judgements of lack of DMC in people with depression varied greatly according to acuity of illness and whether judgements are structured or unstructured.

Conclusions: Depression can impair DMC especially if severe. Most evidence indicates appreciation as the ability primarily impaired by depressive illness. Understanding and measuring the appreciation ability in depression remains a problem in need of further research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension
  • Decision Making*
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent* / ethics
  • Informed Consent* / psychology
  • Informed Consent* / standards
  • Judgment*
  • Mental Competency* / psychology
  • Patient Participation* / psychology
  • Uncertainty