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A matter of time: grappling with everyday ethical tensions at the confluence between policy and practice in a psychiatric unit


Objective To provide insights on emergent ethical tensions experienced by mental health practitioners during system re-organisation, which is sufficiently grounded in empirical data at the local level to inform policy on recovery at institutional and provincial levels.

Method Ethnographic methods using narrative and critical phenomenological resources over 24 months.

Findings Everyday ethical tensions emerged at the confluence of different experiences of time, for example, how a context of increasing pressure to decrease patients’ length of stay at the hospital (service-defined time) challenged efforts to listen to and advocate for what mattered to patients (personal time) and maintain the integrity of interventions (clinical time). In this context, practitioners drew on clinical language and that of personal recovery to strategically ‘push back’, ‘play with’ or ‘take back’ time.

Discussion Examining everyday practices through ethnographic methods can illuminate the everyday ethical tensions that arise when mental health professionals and psychiatrists grapple with, often competing, goods. Critical phenomenological resources can help expand the structural considerations in empirical ethics, excavate underground practices and raise questions about the conceptual categories undergirding normative ethics. Experiencing-with practitioners in clinical contexts as they encounter and creatively resolve ethical tensions also propose a normative ethics of possibility, to help bridge the gap between empirical and normative ethics.

Conclusion Focus on the relationship between policy, temporal practices and ethics suggests a reconfiguration of time and re-imagination of ethics in institutional settings in ways that can ultimately benefit patients and professionals alike.

  • clinical ethics
  • psychiatry
  • public policy
  • philosophical ethics
  • persons

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