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Police to Psychiatrists: Warn Us Of Dangerous Patients


Psychiatrists would have clearer guidelines for reporting potentially dangerous patients to police, under a comprehensive mental health bill the governor will sign tomorrow. 

The bill tries to balance the desires of law enforcement with confidentiality concerns and the professional judgment of mental health professionals.    

We can see what's happening across the U.S. with patients that maybe are not mentally stable. -Rep. Shannon Lundgren

Under Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, mental health professionals can be sued for not alerting police about a dangerous patients if patients end up harming others or themselves.

The bill which passed the Iowa House and Senate unanimously spells out when a psychiatrist or counselor might be sued for not speaking up. 

“We want those parameters to be really clear,” said Iowa Psychiatric Society lobbyist Emily Piper, “so that when you get into the position of making that professional judgment that you are not exposing yourself to liability if you don't believe those parameters were met.”

Under the bill, a psychiatrist who doesn’t report to police would be immune from a lawsuit unless a patient was threatening a clearly identifiable victim or victims.   

“We think it creates a better partnership between mental health professionals and law enforcement,” Piper said.    

Law enforcement and the mental health community reached agreement on the bill.

An earlier version of the bill mandated that mental health professionals “shall” report to police.  The final version clarifies that the reports “may” be made.     

The provider...has to make that call. -Emily Piper, Iowa Psychiatric Society

“I would have preferred shall,” said Sen. Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) a retired deputy sheriff who offered a similar bill last year.   “But ‘may’ gives them the ability to share that information and that’s what we were striving for.”    

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Shannon Lundgren (R-Peosta), says the language dealing with reporting dangerous patients is timely.

“We can see what's happening across the United States with patients who are not mentally stable creating far-reaching havoc,” Lundgren said.

Other states passed similar laws after the court ruling opened up mental health professionals to lawsuits.   

Piper says when a tragedy happens, it’s easy to say a psychiatrist should have known.

“The provider needs to have some protection under the law because they have to make that call or that decision based on information they have at hand,” Piper said.    

Post edited at 6:58 a.m. 03/29 to clarify patients may harm themselves or others.