Duty to Warn

The duty to warn is an exception to the normal standards of client confidentiality that mandates that mental health professionals must warn third parties whom they believe their client may harm. This obligation may also be referred to as the duty to protect. The duty to warn laws and ethical requirements can vary from state to state or depending on a mental health professional’s licensing board.

History of Duty to Warn

The duty to warn became law in California with the Tarasoff Decision. In Tarasoff v. Regents, the California Supreme Court ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to protect third parties and not only may, but must, violate client confidentiality to ensure the threatened party’s safety. The specific actions that practitioners must take vary. If the clinician does not know the third party or does not believe that warning the third party would protect the third party, the therapist typically must notify the police or other relevant authorities. In cases where warning the third party might provide sufficient protection, this may be the correct step.

The duty to warn does not absolve therapists of other client confidentiality obligations, and the therapists is only obligated to provide as much information as is necessary to warn the third party or authorities.  The therapist may not, for example, discuss unrelated treatment details with the person he or she is warning.

Debate Around Duty to Warn

Not all threats posed by therapy clients bring about the duty to warn, and there is some debate among practitioners about what constitutes a credible threat. For example, a person who says, “ I could just kill my mother after what she said to me!” is likely not making a credible threat, while a person who tells his or her therapist of a well-conceived plot to harm his or her mother may be a danger.

Similarly, it can be difficult to determine when someone is a threat, particularly when they have not made a direct threat. For example, a person who owns multiple guns and who expresses extreme rage at his ex-spouse has not made a threat, but if the anger continues to fester after several sessions and the therapist believes the person may harm his ex-spouse, the duty to protect may become relevant. In addition, there is no duty to warn if there is no identifiable victim.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.

Last Updated: 08-6-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • miriam

    August 2nd, 2017 at 2:38 PM

    I was wondering what the laws are for duty to warn in Arizona
    thank you

  • Melaku

    October 7th, 2020 at 8:17 PM

    I was wondering what the laws of duty to warn on Winnipeg, Canada

  • Mary

    August 10th, 2021 at 2:25 PM

    Does the statement if she wasn’t my PO I would let her have does this statement constitute breaking confidentiality and warn the PO of what was said.

  • Pamela

    September 11th, 2021 at 3:07 PM

    Yes. Like. It. In. This. About. This. And. That. I. No. This. Munch. Like. Not. I. Read. Need. Get. One. Start. Up

  • Daniel

    February 2nd, 2022 at 7:02 AM

    I’m sorry about this text but I’m so over being cyber bullyed I’m not scared of anything but this is really getting to me if I found out who they are heads would roll I’m not kidding either this has been going on for years now. I think I need help not just a couple of pills real be right o no . I think they are close to me and I didn’t even know it till now. So f—king angry

  • Terry

    January 14th, 2023 at 7:28 PM

    My therapist discontinued seeing me without warning or notice of any kind. At the end of every session she would check the calendar for next appointment and make the next 2 or 3 appointments. I looked forward to our visits and thought my therapist was wonderful and helping me adjust to an extreme family situation. When she didn’t mention at end of session, I asked about our next appointment. She said she would call me. That was several weeks ago and she has not called. I finally called her and left a message on her machine. Unless something has happened, it feels somewhat like a lack of integrity on her part. Thank you Terry

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