Duty To Warn

Published: May 01, 2013
Dear TeenhealthFX,
So even though this website is anonymous if someone were to write in and tell you they were going to do something really bad (like kill someone else) and if they gave you their name and where they lived, would you call the police or something? Oh but btw Iâ??m not planning on doing this, I was just curious . . .

Dear Duty To Warn,

Mental health professional have a legal duty to warn. Duty to warn refers to the responsibility of a counselor or therapist to inform third parties or authorities if a client poses a threat to himself or herself or to another identifiable individual. In the case of minors there is the additional responsibility to warn if there is evidence or a strong suspicion of sexual or physical abuse.

Legal duty to warn was established in the case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), where a therapist failed to inform a young woman and her parents of specific death threats made by a client. The young woman was subsequently killed and her family sued the therapy provider.

When the law was established no one could have foreseen how the extent the role the internet would play in mental health. In a therapeutic setting the clinician must make a judgment call as to whether the patient poses a serious risk to themselves or others. In this setting, the professional has the opportunity to ask pertinent questions, observe behavior and speak with family members. On a site like TeenHealthFX that does not collect any information or have any direct interaction about our users, we do not have the same ability to assess the situation. That is why in the section where questions are asked it is clearly stated, “TeenHealthFX is a resource for health information and is not a crisis hotline,” and you are directed, If you are in crisis or are in danger of hurting yourself, seek immediate help by calling 9-1-1, or The National Hopeline at Work: 1-800-SUICIDE (748-2433).”

That does not mean that we do not have any responsibility. If someone were to write and make specific claims to hurt themselves, hurt someone else, cause damage to an institution, or being victimized then we would have an obligation to break confidentiality. The threat would have to be very specific, detailed and have a time frame. In these cases we would notify the local authorities. If the authorities found it to be a credible threat then they would need to get a judge’s order compelling the Internet Service Provider to identify the origin of the email. In the case of self-harm or abuse the goal would be to get the person help. If it were a threat against another person or institution the aim would be to protect others.




Signed: TeenhealthFX