From Rogers to Rivers: The Rights of the Mentally Ill to Refuse Medication

Clayton, Ellen Wright
March 1987
American Journal of Law & Medicine;1987, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p7
Academic Journal
Many individuals with mental illness wish to avoid psychotropic drugs, a type of treatment that may relieve their symptoms only at the risk of unpleasant, even permanent, side effects. In marked contrast to the widely-held view that most patients may refuse any treatment and that even patients with mental illness may reject other psychoactive interventions such as electroconvulsive therapy and psychosurgery, the courts and legislatures have been slow to recognize any right to refuse psychotropic drugs. This Article demonstrates that many of the justifications offered for forcing patients to take unwanted medications are inadequate and that unless treatment refusals are reviewed outside mental institutions, patients' rights will rarely receive appropriate deference. The author analyzes the federal and state litigation to determine whether the courts have fashioned meaningful relief for the mentally ill. The Article concludes that two recent United States Supreme Court decisions have made it impossible for the federal courts to provide adequate protection. By contrast, several state courts have responded to the needs and rights of patients with mental illness.


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