According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as many as 43.6 million adults in the U.S. are living with some form of mental illness. No one really likes to feel vulnerable and when we go to a psychiatrist’s office – that’s exactly the position we put ourselves in. Revealing one’s darkest and most traumatic secrets requires us to place our trust in other people. Yet human failures are often why we carry trauma in the first place.
This is one of the reasons the standards of care in the field of psychiatry are so high. Mental health professionals have the important duty of protecting patients and their families.
When a mental health professional fails to exercise proper standards of care and a patient suffers harm, the provider may be held responsible through a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Statistics on Mental Health
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has compelling evidence on the prevalence of mental illness in our society. In 2014, NIMH revealed the following information on mental health in America:
- an estimated 9.8 million adults have a serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia)
- 26% have panic disorder
- 2% have post-traumatic stress disorder
- 4 % are living with severe social phobia
- 3% suffer from an anxiety disorder
Even children are susceptible to struggles with mental illness. Fifteen percent of 8 to 15-years-old experience some form of diagnosable disorder annually.
What Is Considered Medical Malpractice?
When a mental health professional fails to identify and respond appropriately to a patient’s condition, they can be held liable when the patient harms themselves or others. Psychiatric medical malpractice can occur in several ways, but is not limited to:
Breach of Privacy
A psychiatrist has an ethical duty to uphold their patient’s confidentiality. The exception is if their patient behaves in a way that endangers themselves or the community. If a psychiatrist discloses a patient’s personal information, any resulting harm to the patient would be grounds for a malpractice lawsuit.
The biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is the latter’s ability to prescribe drugs for a disorder. Due to the strength and side effects of many medications, prescribing a patient treatment for a disorder they don’t actually have could negatively impact a person’s health.
Inadequate Assessment of Suicide Risk
Responding appropriately to threats and warning signs of suicidal behavior is key in saving the life of patient. If your loved one committed suicide under a doctor’s care and you think this was preventable, you should learn more about your legal rights and options.
Sadly, some psychiatrists may take advantage of their position of authority and manipulate patients. Intellectual bullying and creating false memories are examples of emotional manipulation an unethical mental health professional could use to exploit a patient.
Sexual Relations with a Patient
Even the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, was guilty of this inappropriate breach in doctor-patient relations. Raw emotions and the desire to be comforted can lead to unwelcomed sexual advances by either the patient or doctor. However, a doctor is expected to respond with professional standards of care.
Lack of Informed Consent
This is especially important when prescribing medication to treat mental illness. If a patient is not fully aware of the potential side effects of certain drugs, the doctor may be found liable. Consider that increased suicidal thoughts is one side effect of many drugs used to treat depression.
Failure to Monitor a Patient
An example of this is failing to follow up on a patient with self-harming behaviors, such as cutting. If this patient cuts a major vein and ends up in the hospital, the doctor may face a malpractice suit.
Deceiving a patient for personal or professional gain may not only violate ethical standards, but also the law.
Building a Strong Psychiatric Malpractice Case
From a legal standpoint, it is important to understand the distinction between feeling wronged and mistreated, and suffering from psychiatric medical malpractice. (Though they often go hand-in-hand). If you think you have a medical malpractice case you will need to prove that psychiatric malpractice occurred. To do so, four elements must be present in your case:
- A provider-patient relationship must be established. In a psychiatric malpractice case, you must prove that a relationship existed between you (or your loved one) and the mental health professional. This establishes that the provider had a duty to exercise “reasonable care.”
- The provider breached this duty of reasonable care. In other words, the provider acted negligently or outside the scope of their professional responsibilities.
- The patient suffered harm. The harm may involve actual physical injuries, emotional suffering, memory loss, aggravation of one’s psychological condition or even death (such as suicide).
- A causal relationship exists between the provider’s breach of duty and the patient’s injury. This can be the most difficult aspect of your case, which is why it is extremely important to seek legal advice and assistance from experienced medical malpractice attorneys.