Year: 2020 Source: BMC Medical Ethics. (2020). 21, 37. SIEC No: 20200425


People who are at elevated risk of suicide stand to benefit from internet-based interventions; however, research in this area is likely impacted by a range of ethical and practical challenges. The aim of this study was to examine the ethical issues and practical barriers associated with clinical studies of internet-based interventions for suicide prevention.


This was a mixed-methods study involving two phases. First, a systematic search was conducted to identify studies evaluating internet-based interventions for people at risk of suicide, and information pertaining to safety protocols and exclusion criteria was extracted. Second, investigators on the included studies were invited to complete an online survey comprising open-ended and forced-choice responses. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used to analyse the data.


The literature search identified 18 eligible studies, of which three excluded participants based on severity of suicide risk. Half of the 15 suicide researchers who participated in the survey had experienced problems obtaining ethics approval, and none had encountered adverse events attributed to their intervention. Survey respondents noted the difficulty of managing risk in online environments and the limitations associated with implementing safety protocols, although some also reported increased confidence resulting from the ethical review process. Respondents recommended researchers pursue a collaborative relationship with their research ethics committees.


There is a balance to be achieved between the need to minimise the risk of adverse events whilst also ensuring interventions are being validated on populations who may be most likely to use and benefit from them (i.e., those who prefer anonymity). Further research is required to obtain the views of research ethics committees and research participants on these issues. Dialogue between researchers and ethics committees is necessary to address the need to ensure safety while also advancing the timely development of effective interventions in this critical area.