Qualitative interviewing with vulnerable populations: Individuals' experiences of participating in suicide and self-harm based research

Lucy Biddle*, Jayne Cooper, Amanda Owen-Smith, Emily Klineberg, Olive Bennewith, Keith Hawton, Nav Kapur, Jenny Donovan, David Gunnell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

96 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Concern exists that involving vulnerable individuals as participants in research into suicide and self-harm may cause distress and increase suicidal feelings. Actual understanding of participants' experiences is however limited, especially in relation to in-depth qualitative research.

Methods: Data were collected from four separate studies focused on self-harm or suicide. These included people with varying levels of past distress, including some who had made nearly lethal suicide attempts. Each involved semi-structured qualitative interviewing. Participants (n=63) were asked to complete a visual analogue scale measuring current emotional state before and after their interview and then comment on how they had experienced the interview, reflecting on any score change.

Results: Most participants experienced a change in well-being. Between 50% and 70% across studies reported improvement, many describing the cathartic value of talking. A much smaller group in each study (18-27%) reported lowering of mood as they were reminded of difficult times or forced to focus on current issues. However, most anticipated that their distress would be transient and it was outweighed by a desire to contribute to research. An increase in distress did not therefore necessarily indicate a negative experience.

Limitations: There was no follow-up so the long-term effects of participation are unknown. Scores and post interview reflections were collected from participants by the researcher who had conducted the interview, which may have inhibited reporting of negative effects.

Conclusions: These findings suggest individuals are more likely to derive benefit from participation than experience harm. Overprotective gate-keeping could prevent some individuals from gaining these benefits. (c) 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)356-362
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2013

Structured keywords

  • SASH


  • Suicide
  • Self-harm
  • Qualitative interviews


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