Coercion and the Inpatient Treatment Alliance

Psychiatr Serv. 2019 Dec 1;70(12):1110-1115. doi: 10.1176/ Epub 2019 Sep 4.


Objective: The importance of building a strong treatment alliance is widely accepted and uncontroversial. Quantitative research suggests that coercive experiences during psychiatric treatment negatively affect the treatment alliance, but reveals little about how this happens or how patients navigate treatment relationships while experiencing coercion during psychiatric treatment.

Methods: Fifty psychiatric inpatients were interviewed at two hospitals. Patients were asked open-ended questions about the relationship between the treatment alliance and a set of coercive treatment experiences (court-mandated treatment, involuntary hospitalization, locked facilities) and whether such hospital experiences affected the patients' plans for future adherence. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and qualitatively analyzed.

Results: Many participants reported events where coercion made it difficult to form a treatment alliance. An imbalance of power, lack of control, and insufficient participation in treatment planning were described as experiences that interfered with the treatment alliance. Other participants felt the treatment alliance was maintained despite coercive experiences and spoke of good communication with the psychiatrist, understanding the rationale behind interventions, and feeling the psychiatrist was trying to keep the patient's best interests in mind.

Conclusions: Coercive experiences remain undesirable and are frequently detrimental to the treatment alliance. Nevertheless, patients and clinicians should continue to seek a strong treatment alliance even when treatment plans include coercive elements. Efforts to improve communication, to explain the rationale for treatment plans, and to show that clinicians are trying to act in the patient's best interests may help to preserve a therapeutic alliance.

Keywords: coercion; ethics; inpatient treatment alliance; involuntary; therapeutic relationship.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Coercion*
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric
  • Humans
  • Inpatients
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Young Adult