What is a Duty to Warn?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Duty to warn describes the legal responsibilities of certain identified parties toward others, where they must specify risk or danger. This term is most often used with mental health clinicians, but other parties may have a duty to warn people too. For instance, manufacturers may have to tell consumers about risks posed by using a product; e.g. every baby toy that poses a choking hazard usually has to make this clear on its packaging. Alternately people who rent property to others may have a responsibility toward renters and might need to inform them of potential risks of renting property like the presence of lead paint in older homes.

Mental health professionals may break patient confidentiality  if the patient expresses a desire to harm himself or others.
Mental health professionals may break patient confidentiality if the patient expresses a desire to harm himself or others.

The duty to warn is most understood as one exercised by mental health practitioners such as therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists. Ordinarily a patient seeing one of these clinicians has a reasonable presumption of privacy. Such clinicians cannot discuss the private matters of the patient’s life at any time without a signed release. Yet, sometimes mental instability accompanies need to seek mental health treatment, and instability could be so severe that either the patient or someone close to that patient is at risk because of it.

The concept of duty to warn was especially explored in the US in the 1970s and similar cases have occurred in other parts of the world. Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California is often cited as the more important of these because the courts established that mental health clinicians could breach confidentiality agreements to warn other people that a client was a danger. The Tarasoff case specifically arose due to the murder of a young woman, who was not informed that she had been violently targeted by a man with severe mental illness, though those who treated him knew this.

After Tarasoff v. Regents many places created laws regarding responsibilities of the therapist. Though laws may vary by region, mental health specialists could be found remiss if they don’t do some of the following. They must warn the person/s threatened and usually must also contact law enforcement. Warning generally includes being able to commit or report a patient who is a danger to self. In the case of a credible, violent threat directed at the mental health clinician, action might be to call the police.

Despite duty to warn being applied in many places, there are still some concerns about when it should be applied. Threats may have to be very specific, and clinicians must have credible and pronounced belief that the client is actually serious. There is much grey area in interpreting this responsibility. Some clinicians also argue that duty to protect or warn breaches confidentiality in such a serious way, it prevents those with extremely grave mental illness from getting the help they need.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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