Journal Mobile

RH Harwood
Journal Issue: 
Volume 47: Issue 2: 2017




Dealing with violence and aggression is an area where health professionals often feel uncertain. Standing at the interface between medicine, psychiatry and law, the best actions may not be clear, and guidelines neither consistently applicable nor explicit. An aggressive, violent or abusive patient may be behaving anti-socially or criminally. But in acute medical settings it is more likely that a medical, mental health or emotional problem, or some combination thereof, is the explanation and usually we will not know the relative contribution of each element. We must assume that difficult behaviour represents the communication of distress or unmet need. We can prevent and de-escalate situations by understanding why they have arisen, identifying the need, and trying to anticipate or meet it. In these situations ‘challenging behaviour’ is much like any other presenting problem: the medical approach is to diagnose and treat, while trying to maintain safety and function. In addition, the person-centred approach of trying to understand and address psychological and emotional distress is required. Skilled communication, non-confrontation, relationship-building and negotiation represent the best way to manage situations and avoid harm. If an incident is becoming dangerous, doctors need to know how to act to defuse the situation, or make it safe. Doctors must know about de-escalation and non-drug approaches, but also be confident about when physical restraint and drug treatment are necessary, and how to go about using appropriate drugs, doses, monitoring and aftercare. There are necessary safeguards around using these approaches, from the perspectives of physical health, mental wellbeing, and human rights.