Delirium in intensive care: violence, loss and humanity

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Medical Humanities (2020)



arts in health/arts and health, critical care/intensive care, music, Psychology


Delirium in intensive care is an altered state that can bring with it persecutory paranoias, and sometimes expressions of violence on the part of the patient; it can be deeply disturbing for the person experiencing it as well as for those around them. Although the impacts of delirium on patients’ recovery and long-term mental health are well documented, qualitative research in this area remains rare. This article is derived from a narrative and musical study of the experience of delirium in hospital, undertaken better to understand the perspectives of people who have experienced delirium, as well as the healthcare professionals and family members who care for them. Data were collected in South Africa between 2015 and 2017. The study took the form of interviews and focus groups with a total of 15 participants, as well as periods of observation and audio recording in a hospital intensive care unit. Thematic and narrative analysis of the data were carried out alongside the composition of new music incorporating audio recordings from the study. Analysis suggested three key themes emerging from the data. First, the violence experienced and expressed by patients, both within delirious hallucination and in observable reality. Second, the interconnected losses undergone by patients in spaces of intensive care. Third, healthcare professionals’ attempts to bring greater humanity into the potentially dehumanising space of intensive care. The results and discussion point to possible relationships between delirium and the working cultures and physical environment of intensive care, and may reinforce the need for sensitive and committed communication between healthcare professionals and patients.


Publisher: Institute of Medical Ethics Section: Original research