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Vol. 10 No. 1: April issue

​​Nested Ethics: The Management of Young People’s Goals in Alternative UK Mental Health Services

February 4, 2022


Youth mental health interventions in the UK increasingly use goal-setting procedures to shape services and measure outcomes in ways that are intended to be meaningful to service users. This research article questions this premise, departing with the ethnographic observation that many young people do not seem to welcome the invitation or requirement to direct their therapeutic aims and set the terms for service evaluation in the form of goals. I will show that goal-setting procedures are examples of a broader field of complex ethico-political dilemmas navigated by mental health service staff. While wanting to enable young people to be healthy agents, staff are simultaneously critically aware of the risk of imposing normative, unrealistic and unfair expectations onto young people. I propose that these staff are engaged in a specific form of ethico-political practice, which I call ‘nested ethics’. I use this term to describe instances where staff ethically evaluate their own conduct in line with the capacity to enable the ethical life of another person (youth, in this case). Viewing goal-setting processes as an example of an uneasy politics of nested ethics enables a new perspective from which to advance debates about the enablement of service user choice within care provisions.