Clinician’s experiences with involuntary commitment for substance use disorder: A qualitative study of moral distress

Int J Drug Policy. 2021 Oct 4;99:103465. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103465. Online ahead of print.


BACKGROUND: Petitions for involuntary commitment of people living with a substance use disorder (SUD) have almost doubled since 2011 in Massachusetts through the policy Section 35. However, the efficacy of this controversial policy remains unclear, and clinicians differ on whether it ought to be used. This study examines how clinicians decide whether to use Section 35 and their experiences of moral distress, the negative feeling that occurs when a clinician is required to pursue a treatment option against their moral judgement due to institutional constraints, associated with its use.

METHODS: Qualitative semi-structured interviews with clinicians in Massachusetts were conducted between December 2019 and February 2020 and continued until thematic saturation. Thematic and narrative analysis was conducted with recorded and transcribed interviews.

RESULTS: Among 21 clinicians, most (77%) experienced some or high moral distress when utilizing Section 35 for involuntary commitment, with clinicians working in emergency departments experiencing less distress than those working in SUD clinics. Clinicians with low moral distress referenced successful patient anecdotes and held an abstinence-based view of SUD, while clinicians with high moral distress were concerned by systemic treatment failures and understood SUD through a nuanced and harm reduction-oriented view. Clinicians across professional settings were concerned by the involvement of law enforcement and criminal justice settings in the Section 35 process. Clinicians employed a variety of strategies to cope with moral distress, including team-based decision-making and viewing the petition as a last resort. Barriers to utilizing Section 35 included restrictive court hours and lack of post-section aftercare services.

CONCLUSION: Widespread distress associated with use of involuntary commitment and inconsistent approaches to its use highlight the need for better care coordination and guidance on best practices for utilization of this policy.

PMID:34619444 | DOI:10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103465

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