Investigating young people’s moral perspectives on the identification of biomarkers in psychiatry
In the past years there has been a strong commitment by part of the research community to incorporate genetic and neurobiological information in psychiatric diagnosis, in order to align psychiatry to the other fields of medicine. Scientists have, indeed, identified genes and brain changes that seem to be associated to the onset of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia. These studies have a great potential in terms of early interventions, as patterns of genes and neurons may be used as biological markers for susceptibility to a certain mental disorder prior to onset of the condition or at least at the very early stages of its development. If these discoveries are translated from the laboratories to psychiatric clinical care, we may develop and use some tools, such as brain scans and genetic testing, to identify individuals who are at an increased risk of developing certain psychiatric conditions even before they show any clinical symptoms of them.
However, the potential application of these discoveries raises a range of ethical concerns that have been discussed in the literature. For instance, some are worried about the psychological impacts of identifying someone as at increased risk of developing schizophrenia even before they have experienced any symptoms of the condition. Moreover, there are concerns that the identification of biological traits of susceptibility to psychiatric disorders will increase stigma around mental health. Furthermore, some scholars wonder what the implications of adopting a biomedical approach to psychiatry, which focuses on genes and neurons, will be compared to adopting a psychosocial approach which targets the environmental contributions to mental health issues.
While many empirical studies have explored adult patients, their spouses, their geneticists, and their psychiatrists’ views and concerns around the potential translation of gene and neuro findings in psychiatric clinical care, very little research has given voice to young people’s moral concerns. This is an important gap in the current debate, as young people are likely to become the main target of the early intervention strategies that will be potentially developed thanks to gene and neuro findings. Therefore, the idea of this study is to involve young people in this ethical debate. In particular, this research aims at testing the concerns that have been expressed by adults with young people, to see if young people have the same moral concerns and hopes about the recent advances in psychiatric genetics and neuropsychiatry, or if their concerns and hopes differ and, if so, why.
This study is part of the Wellcome-Trust funded BeGOOD: Early Intervention Ethics project, which investigates the ethical, social, and scientific dimensions of the early intervention paradigm where it intersects with psychiatry, mental health, and child development.