Biases in the evaluation of self-harm in patients with disability due to spinal cord injury



Suicide is a global problem and accurate assessment of risk for self-harm is critical. Even morally principled clinicians can manifest bias when assessing self-harm in patients with physical disabilities such as spinal cord injury (SCI). Assessment of self-harm is an obligation for health care clinicians and overestimating or underestimating risk may undermine a patient’s trust in their care, possibly leading to less engagement, increased apathy about having an interest in living, and less adherence to healthy treatment options.

Case presentation

Introduces readers to three biases that can impact decision-making regarding a patient with a disability when assessing the patient’s risk for self-harm: (1) ineffectual bias, (2) fragile friendliness bias, and (3) catastrophe bias. These preconceptions are derived from a mix of paternalism, projection, low expectations, pity, and infantilization. In this paper, we explain how each bias can affect clinical decision-making regarding diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and prevention for patients with SCI within a common case scenario. Readers can employ personal reflection and potential self-application when they encounter individuals with SCI in and outside clinical settings.


Unchecked biases toward the disabled and patients with SCI can undermine ethical caregiving. Biases are habits of mind and thoughtful clinical and education interventions can improve clinical practice. The literature on health care bias with other minority groups is instructive for investigating biases related to patients with disabilities, and especially for clinicians outside of rehabilitation medicine.

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Correspondence to Maggi A. Budd.

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Budd, M.A., Haque, O.S. & Stein, M.A. Biases in the evaluation of self-harm in patients with disability due to spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord Ser Cases 6, 43 (2020).

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