Clinician response to violation of the "social contract"

I had a stimulating conversation with a senior colleague in the CSPS yesterday. One part of the conversation centered around what happens for us, as clinicians, when the patient does not fulfill his/her end of the "social contract" that is implied when someone goes to a mental health professional. The assumed contract is that the professional gets to ask all kinds of personal questions, make recommendations about intimate details of a person's life, and the patient is expected to accurately, honestly, and completely answer our questions, cooperate with recommendations, and be appreciative in the process.

In a previous post about risk and patient Choice, I offered ideas about how to approach a particular instance of patient patient choice (sometime known as "noncompliance"), including some initial documentation suggestions. But that post didn't address how to handle the emotions that accompany working with a patient who exercises his/her freedom by not answering our questions or by refusing our help.

Clinicians experience a range of emotions in these situations under these circumstances. Helplessness, anger, and fear come to mind first. From a family therapy perspective, this calls for what Murray Bowen (1978) called "differentiation"--the ability to remain engaged, present, and available while not becoming reactive, defensive, or distant. Easier said than done! Especially hard when clinicians often feel a duty to protect patients from harm.

The first step is to name what is going on. "This person is violating the 'social contract' and it is making me angry. I'm also afraid that this person could die while in treatment with me." Next is some cognitive work: "This person did not give up the right to direct his life, keep his privacy, and make choices when he sought professional help." Along with that, your best friend is good old fashion consultation. I plan to post more in the future about how to get consultation from colleagues about suicide risk, but for now, I think the main thing is for us, as clinicians, to explicitly frame the consultation in term of our emotions. "I am afraid and angry because a person I am working with, who has high risk of suicide, is not cooperating with my attempts to assess and intervene." That frames the consultation discussion as being about "how am I going to work with this person given my emotions?," rather than "how can I get this person to do what I want, given how difficult he is."

As always, there is much more to say about this. This discussion of the therapeutic social contract and patient choice is not specific to patients with suicide risk. But it deserves special attention in the context of suicide risk because the stakes are high, the issue is loaded, and medical-legal preoccupations kick in and complicate everything. More to come...


Bowen, M. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Aronson Publishers.