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Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie 54 (2012) 7, 583 - 592


Autonomy: to what extent is the concept relevant in psychiatry?

F.A. de Wit

background Autonomy is an important concept in psychiatry, but because it is a somewhat abstract and ambiguous notion, it is not applicable in its entirety in a psychiatric context. This becomes obvious in situations where patients are receiving long term care and treatment.
aim To modify the concept of autonomy in such a way that it acquires an extra dimension that renders it applicable to daily psychiatric practice.
method The literature was reviewed in order to find articles that reveal the tensions that arise between autonomy and dependence in psychiatry and that reflect the human characteristics that are concealed behind the modern concepts of autonomy, freedom and respect for autonomy.
results Concepts such as person, identity, acknowledgement, dialogical ethics and life histories are used as an addition to the concepts of autonomy of Kant and Mill. A phenomenological and a context sensitive conception of autonomy is needed within the perspective of dialogical ethics. A dialogical perspective requires from psychiatric professionals a susceptibility for what the patient as a human being really has to say. On the basis of a dialogue where there is space and attention for life histories, backgrounds and the potentials of patients, a new perspective can be developed that is shared by the persons involved.
conclusion In psychiatry, statements about real autonomy and genuine respect for autonomy are only truly meaningful within the context of doctors, nurses and patients. A hermeneutic approach to patients which involves dialogue creates new opportunities in the field of staff-patient relations.

keywords autonomy, ethics, narrative, psychiatry