Truth and consequences: ethics, confidentiality, and disclosure in adolescent longitudinal prevention research

J Adolesc Health. 2003 Nov;33(5):385-94. doi: 10.1016/s1054-139x(03)00184-8.


Purpose: To examine data from a natural experiment resulting from a change made in the confidentiality agreement midway through a randomized, longitudinal, controlled trial to prevent or delay adolescent alcohol use. The investigators explored the impact of the change on adolescents' rates of participation and affirmative responses to a question on suicidal thoughts.

Methods: Adolescents 12-17 years old were administered a question on suicidal thoughts as part of a confidential exit interview after a general health examination with their primary care provider. After administration to 263 adolescents, the exit interview was made conditionally confidential with the remaining 181 adolescents. The revised consent form and protocol stipulated that researchers would reveal to appropriate professionals and parents any adolescent indicating suicidal thoughts. Prevalence estimates for the suicidal thoughts question and study participation rates were computed for conditions both before and after the change.

Results: Fewer adolescents responded affirmatively to the suicidal thoughts question when they were recruited using the revised (1%) than the original (8%) consent form and protocol (p=.001). The revised confidentiality agreement did not affect participation rates.

Conclusions: Adolescents who assent to participate in research studies may be less likely to disclose personal information regarding suicidal thoughts if they know that their disclosure may result in a break in confidentiality. Specific guidelines are needed for conditional and unconditional confidentiality agreements to study mental health in adolescent longitudinal prevention research.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcohol Drinking / prevention & control
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology
  • Behavioral Research / ethics*
  • Child
  • Confidentiality / ethics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mandatory Reporting
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychology, Adolescent / ethics*
  • Self Disclosure
  • Suicide / psychology
  • Suicide Prevention