Coercion and power in psychiatry: A qualitative study with ex-patients

Evi Verbeke*, Stijn Vanheule, Joachim Cauwe, Femke Truijens, Brenda Froyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: Coercion is a controversial issue in mental health care. Recent research highlights that coercion is a relational phenomenon, although, it remains unclear how this intersubjective context should be understood. The aim of this study is to propose an interactional model of the relational aspects of coercion that enhances theoretical understanding, based on the assumptions of patients. Method: The research question was studied by means of interpretative phenomenological analysis. Twelve people who had psychiatric hospitalisations were interviewed in-depth, using broad open questions relating to the experience of coercion and power in psychiatry. Data were collected in 2016 and 2017 in Belgium. Results: Across participants’ accounts we observed a specific structure. The relational quality of coercion seemed to be embedded within a process where individuals were one-sidedly approached as a ‘sick patient’ which led to profound segregation between staff and patients. This segregation caused a form of de-subjectivation: participants felt that important aspects of their subjectivity were neglected and they experienced professionals as de-subjectivated. They felt as if power resides within the (non-) interactions between patients and mental health workers. De-subjectivation arose and was enlarged within relations by broken contact, by silence in coercive acts, and by the necessity of patients to conform to the professionals’ treatment regime. Helpful encounters that were not deemed coercive were those where patients and staff were individuated, which altered their relation. Conclusions: To understand the relational quality of coercion, interventions like seclusion and house rules should also be understood within this structure of de-subjectivation. We need to tackle this dynamic if we want to reduce coercion in psychiatric care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-96
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes

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© 2019 Elsevier Ltd

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