Behind the screen of voluntary psychiatric hospital admissions: A qualitative exploration of treatment pressures and informal coercion in experiences of patients in Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom

Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2022 Mar;68(2):457-464. doi: 10.1177/00207640211003942. Epub 2021 Apr 15.


Background: Despite the extensive research and intense debate on coercion in psychiatry we have seen in recent years, little is still known about formally voluntarily admitted patients, who experience high levels of perceived coercion during their admission to a psychiatric hospital.

Aims: The purpose of the present research was to explore forms of treatment pressure put on patients, not only by clinicians, but also by patients' relatives, during admission to psychiatric hospitals in Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom.

Methods: Data were obtained via in-depth, semi-structured interviews with patients (N = 108) diagnosed with various mental disorders (ICD-10: F20-F49) hospitalised in psychiatric inpatient wards. Maximum variation sampling was applied to ensure the inclusion of patients with different socio-demographic and clinical characteristics. The study applied a common methodology to secure comparability and consistency across participating countries. The qualitative data from each country were transcribed verbatim, coded and subjected to theoretical thematic analysis.

Results: The results of the analysis confirm that the legal classifications of involuntary and voluntary hospitalisation do not capture the fundamental distinctions between patients who are and are not coerced into treatment. Our findings show that the level of perceived coercion in voluntary patients ranges from 'persuasion' and 'interpersonal leverage' (categorised as treatment pressures) to 'threat', 'someone else's decisions' and 'violence' (categorised as informal coercion).

Conclusion: We suggest that the term 'treatment pressures' be applied to techniques for convincing patients to follow a suggested course of treatment by offering advice and support in getting professional help, as well as using emotional arguments based on the personal relationship with the patient. In turn, we propose to reserve the term 'informal coercion' to describe practices for pressuring patients into treatment by threatening them, by making them believe that they have no choice, and by taking away their power to make autonomous decisions.

Keywords: Treatment pressure; perceived coercion; psychiatric hospitalisation.

MeSH terms

  • Coercion
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders* / psychology
  • Mental Disorders* / therapy
  • Poland
  • United Kingdom