Under which conditions are changes in the treatment of people under involuntary commitment justified during the COVID-19 pandemic? An ethical evaluation of current developments in Germany

Int J Law Psychiatry. Nov-Dec 2020;73:101615. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2020.101615. Epub 2020 Nov 10.


The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant challenges in psychiatric hospitals, particularly in the context of the treatment of people under involuntary commitment. The question arises at various points in the procedure for and process of involuntary commitment whether procedural modifications or further restrictive measures are necessary to minimise the spread of COVID-19 and protect all people involved from infection. In the light of current developments in Germany, this article examines under which conditions changes in the treatment of people under involuntary commitment are ethically justified in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among others, we discuss ethical arguments for and against involuntary commitments with reference to COVID-19, the use of different coercive interventions, the introduction of video hearings, an increased use of video surveillance and interventions based on the German Infection Protection Act. We argue that strict hygiene concepts, the provision of sufficient personal protective equipment and frequent testing for COVID-19 should be the central strategies to ensure the best possible protection against infection. Any further restrictions of the liberty of people under involuntary commitment require a sound ethical justification based on the criteria of suitability, necessity and proportionality. A strict compliance with these criteria and the continued oversight by external and independent control mechanisms are important to prevent ethically unjustified restrictions and discrimination against people with the diagnosis of a mental disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: Basic rights; Coercion; Coronavirus; Involuntary admission; Medical ethics; Psychiatry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / ethics*
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Communicable Disease Control / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Germany / epidemiology
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric
  • Humans
  • Involuntary Commitment / ethics*
  • Involuntary Commitment / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Pandemics
  • SARS-CoV-2