Care planning: a neoliberal three card trick

Mckeown, Michael orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-0235-1923, Wright, Karen Margaret orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-0693-7294 and Mercer, David (2017) Care planning: a neoliberal three card trick. Journal Of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 24 (6). pp. 451-460. ISSN 1351-0126

[thumbnail of Author Accepted Manuscript]
PDF (Author Accepted Manuscript) - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.


Official URL:


The three card game, sometimes called find the queen, is a classic confidence trick, typically taking place on an impromptu table top, set up on pavement or street corner. The tricksters usually operate in teams, pulling in punters and ‘losing’ games with their fellows to persuade prospective speculators the game is winnable. For our titular purposes the three card trick serves as a metaphor for broader deceits. We are concerned with how well-meaning mental health nurses can enter into a set of apparently rational practices, insisted upon by policy and protocol, seemingly motivated by ideals of care and protection from harm, yet functioning to destroy the very essence of what it might mean to be a caring, progressive practitioner by contributing to a mutuality of alienation that, at the relational level, is the opposite of what services intend to achieve. This may prove to be the case because an external confidence trickster (neoliberalism) is actually in charge, and the real function of the game serves other ends.

The whole point of the game is that genuine players can never win, and for the trickster to triumph it is necessary that these punters are willing, gullible and in most circumstances accept losses without too much fuss. When the losers do not go quietly this is referred to in the argot of the con as ‘squawking’, and personnel are deployed on the periphery to ensure any squawk is minimised. Various strategies can be used to ‘cool out the mark’, and are analogous to the means by which people are assisted to adjust to life’s disappointments in other contexts, including encounters with priests or sundry psy-professionals (Goffman 1952; McKeown et al. 2013).

This commentary paper seeks to provoke nursing out of its state of gullibility and self-deception even if this involves painful reflection on the losses inherent in our collective game of mental health care. If we are to defend the importance of mental health nursing we must think more critically about our complicity within oppressive systems of control and do something about it. There is a lengthy critical tradition to draw on. We urge mental health nurses to squawk, asserting a more recalcitrant and rebellious standpoint, preferably in alliance with service users, refusers and survivors. Acknowledging the constraints upon nursing’s agency, deficits of power, and structural disadvantage need not default to impotence and inaction: collective resistance is always possible, however difficult the circumstances.

Repository Staff Only: item control page