From the Editor

Paradise lost: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among psychiatric patients

Author and Disclosure Information


The United States Declaration of Independence is widely known for the words that begin its second paragraph:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Those basic rights are accessible and exercised by all healthy US citizens, but for many individuals with psychiatric disorders, those inalienable rights may be elusive. Consider how they are compromised by untreated psychiatric illness.

Life. This is the most basic right. In the United States, healthy individuals cherish being alive, and many take it for granted, unlike the residents of nondemocratic countries, where persons may be killed by dictators for political or other reasons (Stalin and Hitler murdered millions of innocent people). In the past, persons with mental illness were considered possessed by demons and were killed or burned at the stake (as in the Middle Ages). But unfortunately, the current major risk for the loss of life among psychiatric patients is the patients themselves. Suicidal urges, attempts, and completions are of epidemic proportions and continue to rise every year. Our patients end their own lives because their illness prompts them to relinquish their life and to embrace untimely death. And once life is lost, all other rights are abdicated. Suicide attempts are common among patients who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes, suicide is unintentional, such as when a patient with a substance use disorder inadvertently overdoses (as in the contemporary opioid epidemic) or ingests drugs laced with a deadly substance. For many untreated patients, life can be so fragile, tenuous, and tragically brief.

Liberty. Healthy citizens in the United States (and other democratic countries) have many liberties: where to live, what to do, where to move, what to say, what to believe, who to assemble with, what to eat or drink, whom to befriend, whom to marry, whether or not to procreate, and what to wear. They can choose to be an activist for any cause, no matter how quaint, or to disfigure their bodies with tattoos or piercings.

In contrast, the liberties of individuals with a psychiatric disorder can be compromised. In fact, patients’ liberties can be seriously shackled by their illness. A person with untreated schizophrenia can be enslaved by fixed irrational beliefs that may constrain their choices or determine how they live or relate to others. Command hallucinations can dictate what a patient should or mustn’t do. Poor reality testing detrimentally limits the options of a person with psychosis. A lack of insight deprives a patient with schizophrenia from rational decision-making. Self-neglect leads to physical, mental, and social deterioration.

For persons with depression, the range of liberties is shattered by social withdrawal, overwhelming guilt, sense of worthlessness, dismal hopelessness, doleful ruminations, and loss of appetite or sleep. The only rights that people with depression may exercise is to injure their body or end their life.

Think also of patients with OCD, who are subjugated by their ongoing obsessions or compulsive rituals; think of those with panic disorder who are unable to leave their home due to agoraphobia or cannot drive freely because of fears related to bridges or tunnels; think of persons who are enchained by their addiction and oppressed by the craving for drugs, food, or gambling. There are few meaningful liberties left for all such patients.

Continue to: Happiness


Next Article: