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What Is My Duty to Warn? Lambert and Wertheimer Published Online: Jan 11th 2016

What Is My Duty to Warn?

Published Online:
Laws governing mental health professionals’ “duty to warn” vary by state, but here are some general principles to guide you.

Although psychiatrists are legally required to protect the confidentiality of mental health information disclosed by their patients, most states have laws either mandating or permitting psychiatrists to reveal confidential information when patients pose harm to a third party.

Most of these laws, commonly referred to as “duty to warn” laws, were passed following the seminal court case of Tarasoff v. The Regents of the University of California. This case established a duty among mental health professionals to warn potential victims of a risk of violence. The laws afford mental health professionals immunity from civil and criminal liability for the disclosure of confidential mental health information under certain conditions. The specific requirements of these laws vary by state, and it is important to consult your local attorney or risk management professional when faced with a duty to warn/protect situation.

Most jurisdictions now follow one of three approaches:

  • Mandatory duty to warn (majority of states)

  • Permissive duty to warn

  • No duty to warn (minority of states)

In a “mandatory” duty to warn state, mental health professionals must warn potential victims (and in some states, law enforcement) of threats made by a patient, when all three of the following conditions are met:

  • A specific threat of physical harm is made.

  • There is a clearly identified or reasonably identified victim.

  • The patient has the intent and ability to carry out the threat.

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