Disclosure of suicidal thoughts during an e-mental health intervention: relational ethics meets actor-network theory

Ethics and Behavior 31 (3):151-170 (2021)


ABSTRACT The technological revolution has created enormous opportunities for the provision of affordable, accessible, and flexible mental healthcare. Yet it also creates complexities and ethical challenges. While some of these challenges may be similar to face-to-face care, their nuance in the online milieu is different, as relationships, identities and boundaries in this setting are fluid, and there is an absence of physical presence. In this paper we consider the specific ethical complexities involved in the provision of a social networking intervention for depression and problematic alcohol use involving providers and peers. We present a case in which clinicians encountered a participant who repeatedly expressed suicidal thoughts in this online forum, and reflect on how this situation was managed. In analyzing this case, we use relational ethics—which proposes that interpersonal relationships are the fulcrum for ethical decision-making and action—together with actor-network theory—which highlights the power of technology to transform and mediate social and ethical relationships. Our analysis demonstrates the need to move beyond human-centric approaches, to recognize the role of both human and non-human actors in shaping moral decisions and behavior in the provision of e-mental healthcare.

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