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IRB Question--Intervening in potential self-harm... Barbara Gray 15 Apr 2004 18:28 EST

We recently had a situation that caused our IRB (social and behavioral)
to think about how we deal with cases in which an identifiable research
participant indicates on a psychological assessement that he/she may
pose a threat of harm to him/herself or others.  We know that the
researcher has a moral and legal obligation to intervene, and we prepare
for this possiblility by informing participants in the consent
process/form that if they indicate potential for self-harm or harm to
others, they will be contacted and referred for assistance.  However, we
got to wondering about the obligation of the researcher in scoring these
types of assessments.  So....

Does the researcher have an obligation to score these instruments in a
very short time period--perhaps 24 hours?

Is there a commonly accepted turnaround time for scoring these types of
instruments in the psychology/psychiatry field?

Can the IRB require scoring within a certain time period so that any
intervention needed can happen quickly?

What is the legal liability of the institution if the researcher waits
two weeks to score the instrument and the participant injures/kills
him/herself or harms someone else in the interim?

Is the institutional liablity increased if the IRB requires scoring
within a certain period of time and the researcher does not comply and
the participant does the harm in the interim?  Obviously, it would be
difficult--and unrealistic--for the IRB to monitor the researcher's
compliance with this requirement.

Should the IRB even be concerned about the institutional liability?
This is not part of the federal mandate, but if it is not the IRB that
oversees how a researcher deals with these potential situations, then
who should be providing the oversight?  One might argue that the IRB
would be addressing minimization of harm, but it really isn't potential
harm from participation in the research.  Rather, the potential for harm
just comes to light because the person disclosed such during
participation in a research project.

In addition to seeking answers to these questions, we're looking for
model policies that give researchers guidance on how to conduct research
that involves identifiable participants who may express intent for
self-harm or harm to others.  Sample wording for consent forms would be
particularly helpful.


Barbara H. Gray, Director
Office of Research & Grants Administration
College of Charleston
66 George Street
Charleston, SC  29424
Campus Location:  407-G Bell Bldg.
Office: 843.953.5673  Desk: 843.953.5885  Fax:  843.953.6577
e-mail:   URL:

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