In 1976, the California Supreme Court ruled that psychotherapists have a duty to protect potential victims if their patients made threats or otherwise behaved as if they presented a "serious danger of violence to another." In ruling on the case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, the court determined that the need for therapists to protect the public was more important that protecting client-therapist confidentiality.
Guided by the court decision, the state of California later passed a law stating that all therapists have a duty to protect intended victims by either warning victims directly, notifying law enforcement directly, or taking whatever other steps to prevent harm might be needed. Despite the controversy over the circumstances for breaching confidentiality, Tarasoff laws have been adopted across many U.S. states and have guided similar legislation in countries around the world.
The Tarasoff case is based on the 1969 murder of a university student named Tatiana Tarasoff. The perpetrator, Prosenjit Poddar was an Indian graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who had met Tarasoff at a folk dancing class on campus. While they went on several dates, they soon disagreed on the seriousness of their relationship and Poddar became obsessed with her. When Tatiana rebuffed him, Poddar began stalking her and underwent an emotional crisis for which he began psychological counseling at the university medical centre.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.