Psychology and the Law: Institutionalization and Therapist's Duty-to-Warn

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  • 0:06 The Law and Psychology
  • 1:16 Institutionalization
  • 3:28 Therapist's Obligations
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Psychology and the law intersect in many ways. In this lesson, we'll examine two important concepts in forensic psychology: the therapist's obligations of confidentiality and the duty to warn, and institutionalization.

The Law and Psychology

In 1974, Tatiana Tarasoff was full of life. She was happy, healthy and young. A student at the University of California at Berkeley, Tarasoff enjoyed friends and dating. Then she met Prosenjit Poddar. They went on a date that ended in a kiss. He believed that she was the one for him, but she saw it as just a good date. Poddar went on to the campus counseling service and talked to a psychologist. He told the therapist that he was upset that Tarasoff was still dating other men, and that he wanted to kill her.

What happens when someone is a danger to himself or society? What responsibilities do people in the mental health industry have to their patients and to others? These are questions that are often raised in forensic psychology, or the study of the intersection of the law and psychology. There are many ways that the law and psychology overlap. Let's look closer at one dichotomy that often plays out in that arena: The rights of patients versus the rights of society.


Imagine that you are the psychologist that Poddar talks to. He tells you that he is having fantasies of killing Tatiana Tarasoff because she is still interested in other boys. He thinks she should only be interested in him. What do you do?

When someone is a danger to himself or others, he or she can be institutionalized, or committed to a psychiatric facility. There are two types of institutionalization: civil commitment and criminal commitment. Though both civil and criminal commitment involve the judicial system, civil commitment happens before someone commits a crime and criminal commitment happens afterwards.

Let's go back to the situation from before. Prosenjit Poddar is sitting in your office and says that he wants to hurt Tatiana Tarasoff. At that point, you might decide that he is a danger to Tarasoff and try to have him institutionalized against his will.

Since Poddar has not yet hurt Tarasoff, he has not committed a crime. As a result, he will go through the civil commitment process. This includes a series of steps that include legal hearings and testimony from a psychologist. The process for civil commitment can be initiated by anyone, which is why there are steps like hearings to protect the rights of the mentally ill and keep people from being institutionalized unless absolutely necessary.

So if Poddar tells you that he wants to hurt Tarasoff, you might try to have him committed. But let's say for a moment that he didn't go to see a psychologist and never told anyone that he wanted to hurt Tarasoff. Instead, he simply attacked her. After he's arrested, he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity. If the jury agrees that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, he might be sentenced to be institutionalized instead of put in prison, as he would be if he was found guilty.

In both criminal and civil commitment, a person is institutionalized only for as long as it takes for him to cease being a danger to himself or others. Usually, hearings are held at regular intervals to decide whether or not a person is able to be released.

Therapist's Obligations

With civil and criminal commitment, regulations are in place to balance the need to institutionalize some people to protect the public with the need to protect the rights of the patient. But let's go back to the scenario from before. You are a psychologist and your patient tells you that he wants to hurt someone. What do you do?

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