Ethics and mental illness research PSYCHIATRIC CLINICS OF NORTH AMERICA Roberts, L. W. 2002; 25 (3): 525-?


There are many tasks ahead in the area of ethics and mental illness research. We face unknown challenges in psychiatric genetics projects, studies of psychopharmacological interventions in children, controversial scientific designs (e.g., symptom challenge, medication-free interval), and cross-disciplinary research incorporating goals and methods of health services, epidemiology, and social and behavioral science endeavors. Boundaries between innovative clinical practices and research-related experimentation will become increasingly difficult to distinguish, as will the roles between clinicians, clinical researchers, and basic scientists. Moreover, the institutions and systems in which research occurs are being rapidly and radically revised, raising new questions about oversight responsibilities and standards. Our ability to identify and respond to the ethical questions arising in this uncharted territory will depend on our willingness to self-reflect, to integrate the observations and insights of the past century, to think with great clarity, and to anticipate novel ethical problems that keep company with scientific advancements. It will also depend on data. Empirical study of ethical dimensions of human research is essential to anchor and attune the intuitions and theoretical constructs that we develop. Science and ethics have changed over the past 100 years, as they will over the next century. It is ironic that the ethical acceptability of psychiatric research is so much in question at this time, when it holds so much promise for advancing our understanding of mental illness and its treatment. The tension between the duty to protect vulnerable individuals and the duty to perform human science will continue to grow, as long as ethics and science are seen as separable, opposing forces with different aims championed by different heroes. The profession of psychiatry is poised to move toward a new, more coherent research ethics paradigm in which scientific and ethical issues are recognized as inextricably linked: science as a human activity carries complex ethical meanings and responsibilities, and ethics itself is subject to scrutiny and amenable to scientific inquiry. Building a broader, more versatile, and more effective repertoire of safeguards will be increasingly important, and safeguards, in this view, represent a modest price for the privilege of studying serious illnesses--diseases that cause grave suffering and yet are a source of both vulnerability and strength. In this paradigm, attention to ethics safeguards is no longer understood as a barrier to scientific advancement, but rather as the means by which psychiatric research may be conducted with broad societal support, honorably and, ultimately, with the expectation of bringing benefit to millions of people with mental illness.

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