Depression, Competence, and the Right to Refuse Lifesaving Medical Treatment

Am J Psychiatry. 1994 Jul;151(7):971-8. doi: 10.1176/ajp.151.7.971.


Objective: The authors explore the possibility that psychiatrists inappropriately extend their views on suicide by the medically well to refusal of lifesaving treatment by the seriously medically ill.

Method: The legal and bioethics literature on competence to refuse lifesaving treatment and the possible impact of depression on this refusal is reviewed.

Results: Over the past 20 years, the burden of proof concerning the mental competence of seriously medically ill patients who refuse lifesaving treatment has shifted to the persons who seek to override these refusals. However, in psychiatry a patient's desire to die is generally considered to be evidence of an impaired capacity to make decisions about lifesaving treatment. This contrast between ethical traditions is brought into clinical focus during the evaluation and treatment of medically ill patients with depression who refuse lifesaving treatment. The clinical evaluation of the effect of depression on a patient's capacity to make medical decisions is difficult for several reasons: 1) depression is easily seen as a "reasonable" response to serious medical illness, 2) depression produces more subtle distortions of decision making than delirium or psychosis (i.e., preserving the understanding of medical facts while impairing the appreciation of their personal importance), and 3) a diagnosis of major depression is neither necessary nor sufficient for determining that the patient's medical decision making is impaired.

Conclusions: Depression can be diagnosed and treated in patients with serious medical illness. But after optimizing medical and psychiatric treatment and determining that the patient is competent to make medical decisions, it may be appropriate to honor the patient's desire to die.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Bioethics
  • Comprehension
  • Decision Making
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology*
  • Double Effect Principle
  • Ethics
  • Female
  • Forensic Psychiatry
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Life Support Care* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Mental Competency* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Patient Advocacy / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Risk Assessment
  • Social Values
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Treatment Refusal* / legislation & jurisprudence