Background Little is known about how health care professionals deal with ethical challenges in mental health care, especially when not making use of a formal ethics support service. Understanding this is important in order to be able to support the professionals, to improve the quality of care, and to know in which way future ethics support services might be helpful. Methods Within a project on ethics, coercion and psychiatry, we executed a focus group interview study at seven departments with 65 health care professionals and managers. We performed a systematic and open qualitative analysis focusing on the question: ‘How do health care professionals deal with ethical challenges?’ We deliberately did not present a fixed definition or theory of ethical challenge. Results We categorized relevant topics into three subthemes: 1) Identification and presence of ethical challenges; 2) What do the participants actually do when dealing with an ethical challenge?; and 3) The significance of facing ethical challenges. Results varied from dealing with ethical challenges every day and appreciating it as a positive part of working in mental health care, to experiencing ethical challenges as paralyzing burdens that cause a lot of stress and hinder constructive team cooperation. Some participants reported that they do not have the time and that they lack a specific methodology. Quite often, informal and retrospective ad-hoc meetings in small teams were organized. Participants struggled with what makes a challenge an ethical challenge and whether it differs from a professional challenge. When dealing with ethical challenges, a number of participants experienced difficulties handling disagreement in a constructive way. Furthermore, some participants plead for more attention for underlying intentions and justifications of treatment decisions. Conclusions The interviewed health care professionals dealt with ethical challenges in many different ways, often in an informal, implicit and reactive manner. This study revealed nine different categories of what health care professionals implicitly or explicitly conceive as ‘ethical challenges’. Future research should focus on how ethics support services, such as ethics reflection groups or moral case deliberation, can be of help with respect to dealing with ethical challenges and value disagreements in a constructive way.
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