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The Working Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support was convened as part of the 2009 Harvard Humanitarian Action Summit. The Working Group chose to focus on ethical issues in mental health and psychosocial research and programming in humanitarian settings. The Working Group built on previous work and recommendations, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.
The objective of this working group was to address one of the factors contributing to the deficiency of research and the need to develop the evidence base on mental health and psychosocial support interventions during complex emergencies by proposing ethical research guidelines. Outcomes research is vital for effective program development in emergency settings, but to date, no comprehensive ethical guidelines exist for guiding such research efforts.
Working Group members conducted literature reviews which included peer-reviewed publications, agency reports, and relevant guidelines on the following topics: general ethical principles in research, cross-cultural issues, research in resource-poor countries, and specific populations such as trauma and torture survivors, refugees, minorities, children and youth, and the mentally ill. Working Group members also shared key points regarding ethical issues encountered in their own research and fieldwork.
The group adapted a broad definition of the term “research”, which encompasses needs assessments and data gathering, as well as monitoring and evaluation. The guidelines are conceptualized as applying to formal and informal processes of assessment and evaluation in which researchers as well as most service providers engage. The group reached consensus that it would be unethical not to conduct research and evaluate outcomes of mental health and psychosocial interventions in emergency settings, given that there currently is very little good evidence base for such interventions. Overarching themes and issues generated by the group for further study and articulation included: purpose and benefits of research, issues of validity, neutrality, risk, subject selection and participation, confidentiality, consent, and dissemination of results.
The group outlined several key topics and recommendations that address ethical issues in conducting mental health and psychosocial research in humanitarian settings. The group views this set of recommendations as a living document to be further developed and refined based on input from colleagues representing different regions of the globe with an emphasis on input from colleagues from low-resource countries.
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