Managing tail risk in psychiatry – collaborative mapping

by TheEditor

Categories: Management, Mental Health

Too often in psychiatry we are faced with the problem of tail risk. The basic idea is ‘low probability high impact‘ events. This commonly presents among relatively stable patients in contrast to patients in an acute phase of disturbance.  Some patients may have an established pattern of only one or two short-lived periods of disturbance per year where they present risks of suicide, homicide or violence, or arson. In any of those short-lived blips it is possible that serious harm could unfold to self, others or property. See all posts tagged with ‘risk‘.

Origins of the term

Tail risk is commonly defined in the context of finance and investments, and the definition is widely recognised across various industries. Here’s an industry-recognised description of tail risk: “Tail risk refers to the risk of an asset or portfolio of assets moving more than three standard deviations from its current value, representing a rare and extreme event in the distribution of returns. This concept is based on the statistical property of distribution tails in a bell curve (normal distribution). In this context, the “tails” are the far ends of the distribution curve, representing low probability but potentially high impact events. Tail risks are those that lie outside of the normal expectations of the majority of outcomes and are often unforeseen or disregarded in regular risk assessments. They are significant because, despite their low probability, they can have disproportionately large impacts on an investment or portfolio.”

In broader terms, especially when applied to fields outside of finance, such as healthcare, public safety, or technology, tail risk still retains its core concept of rare but high consequence events. The focus in managing tail risk is typically on preparing for and mitigating the impact of these extreme outliers, which, although unlikely, can be catastrophic when they do occur.

Description of tail risk in psychiatry

Tail risk in psychiatry refers to the low probability, high impact events that significantly deviate from the typical course of a patient’s mental health condition or treatment outcomes. These events are analogous to the ‘tails’ in a statistical distribution curve, representing extreme outcomes that fall well outside the normal range of expectations. In psychiatric practice, this might include rare but severe incidents such as unexpected aggressive behaviour, suicide attempts, or acute psychiatric crises that could lead to significant harm to the patient or others. These events are characterised by their rarity and unpredictability, making them challenging to foresee and include in regular risk assessments. Despite their low likelihood, the potential consequences of such tail risks are substantial, necessitating vigilant monitoring, proactive intervention strategies, and comprehensive crisis management planning. The focus in managing psychiatric tail risk is on identifying potential indicators of these extreme events, preparing for their occurrence, and implementing measures to mitigate their impact, all while ensuring the patient’s safety and wellbeing.

Managing tail risk in psychiatry

Managing tail risk in psychiatry is less about precise prediction of low probability high impact events and more about developing and implementing strategies to catch and mitigate these events. This approach involves several key components which incorporate features of preparation and vigilance; individualised risk assessment; proactive intervention; crisis management and response planning; collaboration and communication; ethical and legal considerations; flexibility and adaptation. 

  1. Identification and assessment:

    • Individualised risk identification: Identify potential psychiatric tail risks, such as rare instances of severe aggression, suicide attempts, or acute psychiatric crises.
    • Comprehensive risk assessment: Assess the likelihood and potential impact of these events for each patient, considering their unique history, symptoms, and environmental factors.
  2. Mitigation strategies:

    • Proactive intervention: Develop tailored intervention strategies, including therapy, medication management, and lifestyle modifications, aimed at reducing the likelihood of tail risk events.
    • Early warning sign recognition: Train staff and educate patients and caregivers to recognise early warning signs or triggers that may precede a psychiatric crisis.
  3. Preparation and response planning:

    • Crisis management plans: Establish clear protocols for managing psychiatric emergencies, ensuring resources and guidelines are in place for immediate response.
    • Staff training and patient education: Focus on training for healthcare providers in crisis intervention and educating patients and families about managing potential high-risk situations.
  4. Constant monitoring and re-evaluation:

    • Ongoing monitoring: Continuously monitor patients, particularly those identified as high-risk, for signs of escalating behaviour or worsening conditions.
    • Dynamic care plans: Regularly update care plans based on the patient’s condition and response to treatment, adapting strategies as necessary.
  5. Financial and legal safeguards:

    • Resource allocation: Ensure availability of resources for emergency interventions and extended care for high-risk patients.
    • Legal preparedness: Comply with legal and ethical standards in psychiatric care, balancing patient safety with rights and autonomy.
  6. Stakeholder communication and engagement:

    • Collaborative care approach: Maintain communication with a patient’s broader care network, including family, caregivers, and other healthcare professionals.
    • Community resources: Utilise community resources like support groups and emergency services for a comprehensive approach to crisis management.
  7. Ethical considerations and patient centred care:

    • Ethical decision-making: Navigate the ethical complexities in managing psychiatric tail risks, focusing on patient welfare while respecting their autonomy.
    • Patient centred strategies: Tailor risk management strategies to the individual needs and preferences of patients, involving them in the decision-making process.

Collaborative mapping

A collaborative map of the above broad strategy could look like the following (for example). Please note this is not a one-size-fits all sort of thing. This map – only one example – provides some delineation of responsibilities and actions for care homes and mental health professionals, aiming for a coordinated and effective approach to managing psychiatric tail risks. These sort of maps are not to be copied, printed and put in some folder. The maps should be a living document for patients with tail risk. Maps should be modified for when patients live at home on their own or with relatives. Maps can and should have footnote and endnote references to individualise them. But maps ought not to reify thinking and application of common-sense or initiative. 


Care Homes 

Mental Health Professionals

Identification and Assessment

Report potential tail risks observed in patients.

Assist in gathering data for comprehensive risk assessments.

Lead in identifying and assessing potential psychiatric tail risks.

Conduct comprehensive risk assessments.

Mitigation Strategies

Implement intervention strategies developed by professionals.

Participate in training for early warning sign recognition.

Develop and advise on tailored intervention strategies.

Train staff in recognising early warning signs.

Preparation and Response Planning

Follow established crisis management protocols.

Receive training in crisis intervention and patient education.

Develop and provide clear crisis management protocols.

Conduct staff training and oversee patient education.

Constant Monitoring and Re-evaluation

Continuously monitor patients, especially high-risk ones, and report findings.

Adapt to changes in dynamic care plans as advised.

Review care home monitoring reports.

Regularly update and adapt care plans based on patient condition and treatment response.

Financial and Legal Safeguards

Manage allocated resources for emergency interventions. Follow legal and ethical guidelines in care.

Ensure proper allocation and management of resources for emergencies.

Oversee legal and ethical compliance in care.

Stakeholder Communication and Engagement

Maintain regular communication with patient’s network and professionals.

Utilise community resources as needed.

Facilitate and manage communication between all stakeholders.

Coordinate with community resources for comprehensive management.

Ethical Considerations and Patient-Centred Care

Adhere to ethical practices in patient care.

Implement patient-centred strategies as developed by professionals.

Guide ethical decision-making in tail risk management.

Develop and advise on patient-centred strategies.

Potential pitfalls of collaborative mapping

The use of “collaborative mapping,” created to delineate responsibilities between care homes and mental health professionals, can be highly beneficial for organising and streamlining the approach to psychiatric tail risk management. However, several pitfalls can arise in the use of such maps:

  1. Oversimplification: Collaborative maps might oversimplify complex relationships and responsibilities. The nuances of individual cases and the dynamic nature of psychiatric care can be difficult to capture fully in a tabulated format.
  2. Rigid structure: If adhered to too rigidly, these maps can lead to inflexibility in response to changing circumstances. The evolving needs of patients and situational variances may require more adaptive approaches than what the map may initially suggest.
  3. Communication breakdowns: While the map is intended to facilitate communication, it can lead to misunderstandings or gaps if not regularly updated and clarified among all parties involved. There’s also the risk of assuming that responsibilities are well-understood and agreed upon by all, which may not always be the case.
  4. Dependency on documentation: Over-reliance on the map for guidance can lead to a reduction in critical thinking or intuitive decision-making by staff, who may defer to the map even in situations where deviation might be warranted.
  5. Inconsistent implementation: Variability in how different individuals or teams interpret and implement the guidelines in the map can lead to inconsistencies in care and risk management.
  6. Training and familiarity: Effective use of collaborative maps requires thorough training and familiarity with the content. Inadequate training or failure to regularly review and discuss the map can diminish its effectiveness.
  7. Resource allocation: The map might inadvertently influence the allocation of resources based on outlined responsibilities, potentially leading to imbalances where some areas receive less attention or resources than needed.
  8. Compliance and updating: Ensuring that the map is compliant with current legal and ethical standards in psychiatric care and keeping it updated with the latest best practices and insights can be challenging.

To mitigate these pitfalls, it is essential to use collaborative mapping as a flexible guide rather than a rigid framework, ensure regular updates and discussions about the map, provide adequate training for all stakeholders, and remain vigilant to the dynamic nature of psychiatric care.


The essence of managing psychiatric tail risks involves a collaborative, structured approach that distinguishes between the roles and responsibilities of care home staff and mental health professionals. Care homes are primarily tasked with ongoing patient monitoring, implementing intervention strategies, and adhering to established crisis protocols. Their role is pivotal in early detection and response, given their direct and frequent contact with patients. Mental health professionals, on the other hand, provide oversight, specialist consultations, training and intervention when needed. They lead in the identification and comprehensive assessment of potential psychiatric tail risks, develop intervention strategies, and offer guidance in complex cases and crisis situations.

Effective communication and collaboration between care homes and mental health professionals are crucial, ensuring that observations, updates, and concerns about patients are shared timely and efficiently. Regular training and support for care home staff emphasise the importance of their role in recognising early warning signs and responding appropriately to emerging risks.

While collaborative mapping serves as a valuable tool in organising and guiding this process, its limitations must be acknowledged and addressed to ensure comprehensive, patient-centred care. Risks include oversimplification of complex care dynamics, potential rigidity that may impede adaptive responses to changing patient needs, and possible communication breakdowns. Over-reliance on such maps can lead to reduced critical thinking and inconsistencies in implementation. Regular updates, thorough training, and flexibility in applying the map’s guidelines are necessary to ensure its effectiveness and to avoid these pitfalls. 

The approach also entails a dynamic and ongoing process of monitoring and re-evaluation of patient conditions, enabling timely adjustments to care plans. Financial and legal safeguards are managed with an understanding of the resources needed for emergency interventions and compliance with ethical standards in patient care. Engaging with stakeholders, including patients’ families and community resources, forms an integral part of the strategy, ensuring a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to risk management.

The management of psychiatric tail risks necessitates a coordinated, multi-disciplinary strategy that leverages the strengths and capabilities of both care home staff and mental health professionals, anchored in effective communication, continuous assessment, and proactive intervention.

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