The construction of people with mental health problems as risk objects: Findings of a case study inquiry [2018]

What is known on the subject?
Risk assessment and management in mental health services are contested and perceived as problematic by both professionals and service users.
There is substantial emphasis on risk as a core component of professional practice. However, recovery for people with mental health problems emphasizes self‐determination which seems to conflict with risk management.
A critique is emerging of risk assessment and management. However, there is a lack of empirical evidence which seeks to explore how professionals manage the conflicts between recovery orientated practice and risk management.
What the paper adds to existing knowledge?
The paper reports on qualitative research which highlights people with mental health problems are objectified and frequently associated with the potential for harm.
Risk dominates the work of mental health professionals and undermines individualized care.
Service users are subject to increased surveillance and medication as a result.
What are the implications for practice?
Service users’ subjective experiences need to be prioritized in mental health care by renewed focus on the relationship between professionals and service users.
Mental health professionals should question the centrality of risk to their practice.

The emergence of recovery, alongside significant focus on risk management, creates potential for conflicting influences in mental health care. Although evidence has critiqued risk assessment, there is a lack of research that seeks to explore how professionals make decisions within these apparently incompatible agendas.

To explore how practitioners, experience potential tensions arising from delivering recovery‐orientated care and enforcing containment.

This paper reports on a case study inquiry, using interviews with mental health professionals and observations in an acute ward and an assertive outreach team.

Risk governed the practice of mental health professionals to such an extent it defined how service users were understood and treated. Service users were constructed as objects of risk, first by being objectified and secondly by creating a link between that object and harm.

Hilgartner’s (1992, Organizations, uncertainties and risk (pp. 39–53). Boulder, CO: Westview Press) theory of risk explains how risk dominates the identity of people with mental health problems at the cost of recovery. This results in increased monitoring, surveillance and medication to enact control.

Implications for practice
To undermine the dominance of risk, professionals should reconnect with the subjective experiences of people with mental health problems and challenge the acceptance of risk as central to their role.

Anne Felton, Julie Repper, Mark Avis
Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 29 October 2018