Medical Malpractice in the Mental Health Field

How often do you talk about mental health issues with your family, friends, and coworkers? Probably not very often. Topics like medication, therapy, and suicide ideation aren’t usually considered pleasant things to discuss at the dinner table or around the water-cooler. But for people who suffer from mental illnesses, the unwillingness to openly talk about mental health can make them feel alienated or burdensome.

Luckily, psychiatrists and therapists exist to challenge the stigma that mental illnesses shouldn’t be talked about. In fact, as mental health professionals, they encourage it.

What Do Psychiatrists and Therapists Do?

Psychiatrists and therapists are very similar. They both provide support and guidance, implement coping methods, and give patients the opportunity to safely discuss their feelings. The main difference is that psychiatrists have a medical degree, while therapists are not required to, though many do. This means that psychiatrists can diagnose and treat mental illnesses with medications or other treatments, while therapists focus more on guidance and support.

For people with mental illnesses, both psychiatrists and therapists can offer valuable help. Whether they are providing medication or advice, they can help people with mental illnesses get through the everyday challenges, overcome their limitations, and find healthy ways to cope with their symptoms.

But just like any medical field, treatment for mentally ill patients can be fraught with the potential for  dangers. Since the mental health field concerns such a personal subject and sometimes involves patients who might be a danger to themselves or others, medical malpractice in mental health can be a major issue.

Malpractice in the Mental Health Field

Medical malpractice, in any field, occurs when:

  • A relationship existed between the patient and a professional
  • The professional was negligent
  • The professional’s negligence caused harm
  • The patient suffered specific damage as a result

Unlike medical fields like surgery, where errors or inappropriate action can have very visible consequences, medical malpractice in the mental health field can be much more subtle.

Patient Exploitation and Confidentiality Concerns

One main type of medical malpractice in the field of mental health is patient exploitation. For example, a therapist might make a sexual advance on a patient, or try to sell them a product. Patient exploitation is inappropriate in any context, but when a patient is suffering from a mental illness, particularly one that affects their judgement or rational, the chances of harm are even greater. For example, a therapist’s sexual advances might be triggering for someone who is suffering from PTSD after an assault, increasing their risk of self-harm.

A breach of confidentiality can have similar results in the field of mental health. A breach of confidentiality occurs when information, given to someone under the impression that it would be kept private, is shared publicly. For patients with mental illnesses, breaches of confidentiality might occur if a therapist, psychiatrist, or other professional

  • Knowingly shares their information with others
  • Talks about the patient in a public place
  • Negligently leaves out notes or other private information in a place where others can view them
  • Uses their information in a book or paper without their permission

Medication Errors and Suicide Risk

Another way that medical malpractice may occur in the mental health field is through medication negligence.  For example, if a psychiatrist prescribes medication but does not mention that the medication might increase suicide risk, they could be held responsible for their negligence if the patient commits suicide or harms themselves. Other risks of improper or negligent prescriptions include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Negative interactions with other medications
  • Failure to recognize adverse side effects
  • Overdose

Finally, there is the question of liability over a patient’s suicide. A professional might be liable for a patient’s suicide if they:

  • Know the patient is at a risk of self-harm but fail to take appropriate action
  • Prescribe a medication that leads to an increased suicide risk without properly informing the patient
  • Dismiss the patient’s concerns or misdiagnose an issue
  • Cut off contact with the patient without appropriate cause or warning

Seeking Help

If you are suffering from a mental illness, you are not alone. Over 40 million American adults live with a mental illness and with the right treatment and support, many learn to cope, grow, and thrive. While issues like patient exploitation and medication errors do occur in the mental health field, the vast majority of psychiatrists, therapists, and other professionals are there for support—don’t be afraid to seek out the help you need!

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideation or know someone who needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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