Articles: Mental health 988 emergency lifeline makes national debut &
Reflections on the Tarasoff case   {Below}

988

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

Call or Text

Mental health 988 emergency lifeline makes national debut

By Miriam Segaloff
Associate Editor

    More than two years in the making, the nationwide 988 mental health emergency lifeline launched in July with the goal of expanding access to mental health care and saving lives.“Even I have  trouble 

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remembering the 10-digit number,” The National Council for Mental Wellbeing President and Chief Executive Officer Chuck Ingoglia said. “This is just really an easier way to remember that number and get access. “The whole goal is to make things easier. That’s the major change people will experience.”
      Callers to 988 will be routed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While some areas have been able to connect to the Lifeline by dialing 988 for some time, the three-digit dialing code became active nationwide on July 16, 2022.

     The current Lifeline phone number, 800-273-8255, will continue to remain active. People who call either number will be connected to trained counselors who can provide immediate help and connect them to local resources, if necessary. Calls are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Ingoglia said The National Council has been working with Congress to make sure the more than 200 crisis call centers in the Lifeline’s 50-state network receive funding for current and expanded services.

    “Up to this point, the local call centers have received virtually no money,” Ingoglia said.

With the implementation of 988, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services

Administration (SAMHSA) is providing $48 million in the form of two, five-year grants.

    “I think it is incredible that there is bi-partisan support for 988 and there is activity

in every state in the country to make it work,” Ingoglia said. “I think it’s all very positive.”

    While the initial focus will be on building infrastructure, the long-term goal is to give the

communities the resources and ability to respond to acute mental health crisis.

    “The majority of people who call, their needs can be addressed during the call,” Ingoglia said. “There are going to be people who need more help. The legislation is trying to enhance the ability of a community to provide mobile crisis response. But that’s further down the road.”  

By Miriam Segaloff
Associate Editor

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Reflections on the Tarasoff case
By David Shapiro, Ph.D.

Most people are aware of a court case titled Tarasoff v. The Regents of the University of California. Many, however, are unaware there were actually two Tarasoff cases. The initial Tarasoff case accepted as a legitimate legal theory the concept of duty to warn, within the context of outpatient psychotherapy, when a therapist believes their patient poses a risk of harm to an identifiable third party. 
As a result of amicus briefs filed in the case, the proceedings were revisited two years later when the California Supreme Court conceptualized it as a duty to protect, rather than a duty to warn.

     The importance of this distinction is that the second case allowed for clinical discretion, that is, the clinician involved could use their best professional judgment in deciding what course of action to take when a patient of theirs threatened an identifiable third party.

    While the court did not specify what the steps might be, clinicians have spoken about such interventions as increasing the number of therapy sessions, referring the patient for medication, providing the patient with a cellphone number or a home phone number, seeking either voluntary or involuntary commitment and, as a last resort, notifying the potential victim or the police.

    Of some interest is that the idea of warning a potential victim was accepted as an effective intervention, with few questioning it until subsequent research became available. Research in the latter part of the 1970s suggested that the protective value of notifying a potential victim of violence was minimal and, in some cases, even increased the potential for violent behavior. Nevertheless, the concept survived many years.

    Several subsequent cases discussed whether fantasies of violence, in the absence of actual threats, could trigger such a duty and how specific the threat had to be. Several cases in the early 1980s seemed to stretch the concept beyond its original intent. In one case, a therapist was held liable for failing to warn an intended victim, as well as for failing to warn and/or protect anyone who might, “foreseeably be in close proximity to the intended victim.” In a similar case a therapist was found liable because, even though no threat had been made to the intended victim, he or she fit the “psychological profile” of previous victims. The only positive statement to be made about these two cases is that they were not used as precedent in later cases.

    Perhaps the case that most recognized limits of clinicians was the 1983 federal case of Brady vs. Hopper, which dealt with the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley. One of the shooting victims, Press Secretary James Brady, filed a lawsuit against John Hopper, Psy.D., who had been Hinckley’s therapist. Brady argued Hopper, “knew or should have known,” of Hinckley’s violent tendencies.

    The case was granted a summary judgment at trial and, following Brady’s appeal, the

Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even if Hopper had been aware of Hinckley’s

obsession with Jodie Foster, his identification with the main character in the movie

“Taxi Driver” and that he took target practice at pictures of President Reagan, all of

these factors taken together, would not result in a reasonable perception of danger.

In short, there would have to be a communication from Hinckley to Hopper that he

intended to kill President Reagan before the duty would apply.

    A number of later cases seemed to follow this more liberal trend of giving deference to clinical judgment, including the 1986 case of White vs. The United States, in which a clinician was found not negligent because she had done a comprehensive review of the patient’s background and concluded that he did not pose an actual threat.         The patient did, in fact, act out but the finding of not negligent was based on the therapist following an accepted standard of care in her review of the case. Interestingly, in a companion case, the hospital in which the patient was confined was found negligent for failure to adhere to its own policies.

    Unfortunately, this liberal trend seems to be changing. Many laws seem to be expanding the liability of mental health professionals and not paying as much attention to clinical judgment. In some states, the case law is inconsistent with the statute. The statute is a very carefully worded statement that incorporates the concept of clinical judgment, while the case law speaks about a therapist’s obligation toward, “anyone who might reasonably be endangered.”

    In a similar manner, a number of cases reflect a total abandonment of the concept of clinical discretion and professional judgment. In the summer of 2019, a Florida statute that previously provided for a great deal of professional discretion was changed to make clinicians responsible for harm their patients had talked about and narrows the course of action to notifying an intended victim, but not law enforcement. The change flies in the face of the research noted above regarding the lack of effectiveness of warning potential victims. Whether the statute was motivated by a lack of knowledge of the research or politics cannot be determined at this time.

    Several other states have followed this regressive trend. The only way clinicians can be effective, at this point, is to provide testimony and amicus briefs in cases where these laws are under consideration. Clinicians need to demonstrate that notifying a third party is an ineffective intervention and that more effective ways of handling the situation may lie in better diagnostic and treatment approaches.

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    David Shapiro, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University. He has been in the field of forensic psychology for more than 50 years and has taught courses in forensic assessment, criminal law, ethics and more. He may be contacted by email at: psyfor@aol.com

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