Should Therapists Be Told To Report Clients “Likely to Engage” In Violence?


Experts like University of Virginia law Prof. Richard Bonnie are urging policymakers to be “very careful not to overreact” with mental-health policy changes based on cases like the Newtown, Ct., school shootings, says the New York Times. Example: New York state legislators yesterday passed a bill that would require therapists to report to the authorities any client thought to be “likely to engage in” violent behavior; under the law, the police would confiscate any weapons the person had. Some advocates favored the reporting provision as having the potential to prevent a massacre. Among them was D. J. Jaffe, founder of the Mental Health Illness Policy Org., which pushes for more aggressive treatment policies. Some mass killers “were seen by mental health professionals who did not have to report their illness or that they were becoming dangerous and they went on to kill,” he said.

Many patient advocates and therapists strongly disagreed, saying it would intrude into the doctor-patient relationship in a way that could dissuade troubled people from speaking their minds, and complicate the many judgment calls therapists already have to make. The New York statute requires doctors and other mental health professionals to report any person who “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” One fundamental problem with looking for “warning signs” is that it is more art than science. People with serious mental disorders, while more likely to commit aggressive acts than the average person, account for only about 4 percent of violent crimes overall.

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