The Ethics of Providing Hope in Psychotherapy

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Abstract

The instillation of hope is a common factor in most psychotherapies. A considerable literature exists on the ethics of providing false or positively biased hope in non-psychiatric medical settings, and ethicists have generally concluded that this practice is unethical. However, the literature on the ethics of encouraging hope in psychotherapy, especially in the case of treatment-resistant mental illness, is sparse. The author explores two clinical cases with the intention of examining the nature of hope, false hope, positive illusions, and denial, as they relate to our definitions of mental health and psychotherapy. The cases highlight the ethics of balancing an acknowledgment of likely treatment futility with a desire to hope. Clinical psychological studies on depressive realism and optimistic bias indicate that some degree of positive bias, referred to by some authors as “the optimal margin of illusion,” is in fact necessary to promote what we define as “good mental health;” conversely, stark realism is correlated with mild to moderate depression. An examination of the existential literature, including Ernest Becker’s work, The Denial of Death, indicates that without the defense mechanism of denial, human beings tend to experience paralytic despair as a result of being fallible, mortal creatures in a frightening world. The combination of these diverse bodies of literature, along with the surprising outcomes of our case examples, leads to an unexpected conclusion: it may occasionally be ethical to encourage some degree of optimistic bias, and perhaps even positive illusion, when treating patients in psychotherapy. (Journal of Psychiatric Practice 2013;19:316–322)

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