J Med Ethics 28:151-155 doi:10.1136/jme.28.3.151
  • Ethics, law, and medicine

Depression and competence to refuse psychiatric treatment

  1. A Rudnick
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Rudnick, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
  • Accepted 12 December 2001
  • Revised 15 October 2001


Individuals with major depression may benefit from psychiatric treatment, yet they may refuse such treatment, sometimes because of their depression. Hence the question is raised whether such individuals are competent to refuse psychiatric treatment. The standard notion of competence to consent to treatment, which refers to expression of choice, understanding of medical information, appreciation of the personal relevance of this information, and logical reasoning, may be insufficient to address this question. This is so because major depression may not impair these four abilities while it may disrupt coherence of personal preferences by changing them. Such change may be evaluated by comparing the treatment preferences of the individual during the depression to his or her treatment preferences during normal periods. If these preferences are consistent, they should be respected. If they are not consistent, or past treatment preferences that were arrived at competently cannot be established, treatment refusal may have to be overridden or ignored so as to alleviate the depression and then determine the competent treatment decision of the individual. Further study of the relation between depression and competence to refuse or consent to psychiatric treatment is required.