Ethical standards for mental health and psychosocial support research in emergencies: Review of literature and current debates

Anna Chiumento, Atif Rahman, Lucy Frith, Leslie Snider, Wietse A. Tol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Research in emergencies is needed to understand the prevalence of mental health and psychosocial problems and strengthen the evidence base for interventions. All research - including operational needs assessments, programme monitoring and evaluation, and formal academic research - must be conducted ethically. While there is broad consensus on fundamental principles codified in research ethics guidelines, these do not address the ethical specificities of conducting mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) research with adults in emergencies. To address this gap, this paper presents a review of multidisciplinary literature to identify specific ethical principles applicable to MHPSS research in emergencies. Discussion: Fifty-nine sources meeting the literature review inclusion criteria were analysed following a thematic synthesis approach. There was consensus on the relevance of universal ethical research principles to MHPSS research in emergencies, including norms of participant informed consent and protection; ensuring benefit arises from research participation; researcher neutrality, accountability, and safety; and the duty to ensure research is well designed and accounts for contextual factors in emergency settings. We go onto discuss unresolved issues by highlighting six current debates relating to the application of ethics in emergency settings: (1) what constitutes fair benefits?; (2) how should informed consent be operationalised?; (3) is there a role for decision making capacity assessments?; (4) how do risk management approaches impact upon the construction of ethical research?; (5) how can ethical reflection best be achieved?, and (6) are ethical review boards sufficiently representative and equipped to judge the ethical and scientific merit of emergency MHPSS research? Underlying these debates is a systemic tension between procedural ethics and ethics in practice. Summary and recommendations: In summary, underpinning the literature is a desire to ensure the protection of participants exposed to emergencies and in need of evidence-based MHPSS. However, there is a lack of agreement on how to contextualise guidelines and procedures to effectively maximise the perspectives of researchers, participants and ethical review boards. This is a tension that the field must address to strengthen ethical MHPSS research in emergencies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number8
JournalGlobalization and health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 8 2017


  • Conflict
  • Disaster
  • Emergencies
  • Ethical practice
  • Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS)
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Multidisciplinary literature review
  • Research ethics
  • Research guidelines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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