American Sociological Association

Therapeutic Social Control of People with Serious Mental Illness: An Empirical Verification and Extension of Theory

Mental health services and psychiatric professional values have shifted in the past several decades toward a model of client autonomy and informed consent, at least in principle. However, it is unclear how much has changed in practice, particularly in cases where client behavior poses ethical challenges for clinicians. Drawing on the case of clients’ sexual behavior and contraception use, we examine whether sociological theories of “soft” coercion remain relevant (e.g., therapeutic social control; Horwitz 1982) in contemporary mental health treatment settings. Using structured interview data from 98 men and women with serious mental illness (SMI), we explore client experiences of choice, coercion, and the spaces that lie in between. Patterns in our data confirm Horwitz’s (1982) theory of therapeutic social control but also suggest directions for updating and extending it. Specifically, we identify four strategies used to influence client behavior: coercion, enabling, education, and conciliation. We find that most clients’ experiences reflect elements of ambiguous or limited autonomy, wherein compliance is achieved by invoking therapeutic goals. However, women with SMI disproportionately report experiencing intense persuasion and direct use or threat of force. We argue that it is critical to consider how ostensibly noncoercive and value-free interventions nonetheless reflect the goals and norms of dominant groups.


Brea L. Perry





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