Mental Health Malpractice Can End In Death – So Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About It?

Anxiety

Identifying And Investigating Psychiatric Malpractice

Most medical malpractice cases focus on surgical error and missed diagnoses – actions that lead to obvious physical harm and disability. In the course of long-term clinical relationships, as well as under emergency circumstances, though, psychiatric providers can also be guilty of malpractice. Unfortunately, few people understand how medical malpractice laws apply to psychiatric treatment. In order to pursue justice for those struggling with mental illness, we need broader recognition that malpractice isn’t just about physical health. 

The Scope Of Psychiatric Malpractice

According to the Pensacola-based law firm of Ward & Barnes, “Victims of medical malpractice may experience any number of injuries as a result of medical negligence,” but such a broad framework doesn’t actually tell victims and their families much about what qualifies. More to the point, for those who have suffered psychiatric mistreatment, it can be hard to find evidence of an injury, as conventionally defined. Those knowledgeable about psychiatric malpractice, though, know that there are clear standards for this crime.

At the most basic level, psychiatric malpractice requires establishing a doctor-patient relationship, determining that there was a breach in the duty of care, and that a resultant harm can be directly linked to that breach of duty. For example, in the suicide death of 26-year-old Mona Haddad, her parents contend that her doctor knew she was at an extreme risk for suicide and still declined to communicate with her, and in fact encouraged her to hide information about a recent suicide attempt from emergency room professionals. Her case remains unresolved, but given that it involved an established psychiatric relationship involving providers who had treated Haddad over many months, the case falls firmly within the accepted terms of malpractice.

Emergency Conditions

One of the major challenges involved in bringing a psychiatric malpractice suit is that many suicides and other serious legal harms occur under emergency conditions. Does an ER doctor meet the standard of having a true doctor-patient relationship? Certainly, they have a duty of care, but they lack the ongoing relationship with the patient to understand the complete scope of their needs or their risk profile. 

Let’s look at another recent case, this one involving a teenage psychiatric patient named Monica Rittel. Her family contends that following a 72-hour psychiatric hold, doctors should have known that the girl was a danger to herself. Instead, she was released and died of a drug overdose.

Rittel’s case demonstrates the serious challenges of evaluating a patient’s potential post-discharge behavior. Had Rittel taken methamphetamine that was not laced with fentanyl, she may well have survived, despite her addiction. Does this constitute a breach of care? Some would argue it does not, yet Rittel’s pattern of behavior suggests that her ongoing drug use should have been expected even by ER doctors and that, possibly, she should not have been released from professional care.

Establishing A Pattern

In cases of possible psychiatric malpractice, it may be helpful for lawyers to establish a pattern of behavior on the part of the practitioner, rather than the patient. During the early 1990s, for example, psychiatrist Bennett Braun, a key player in the infamous “Satanic Panic,” had his license suspended, though he never admitted to wrongdoing. Remarkably, despite his scandalous history, Braun continued to practice under a new Minnesota license. Now, in a new lawsuit contending inappropriate treatment, former patient Cierra Rehbein is arguing that the state’s licensing board should have known about his past actions.

Braun’s is an extreme case – one that shows an obvious pattern of improper practice – but this can be said of many doctors. This is why it’s so important to research care providers before entering treatment. However, it should never be a patient’s responsibility to ensure that they are being treated properly. Doctors are the experts and patients place their trust in them. This is the foundation of the doctor-patient relationship and that trust should be inviolate. 

Unfortunately, medical malpractice demonstrates that time and time again, doctors do indeed violate patients’ good faith. Even when the wounds are psychological, those patients deserve justice.