Specific and Immediate Threat

During your interaction with a participant, you may learn of a specific and immediate threat to hurt or kill someone.  A threat can vary in degrees of serious intent.  A participant may casually complain about someone and threaten physical harm without the serious intent of hurting anyone.  The Code of Virginia states that if a mental health care provider “reasonably believes, or should believe according to the standards of his profession, that the client has the intent and ability to carry out that threat immediately or imminently” then the mental health care provider should act.

This section discusses the general responsibilities of researchers and mental health care providers.  If you are conducting your study in a public school or among students, please see Education: Abuse for more information about the legal responsibilities and protocol for reporting threats and illegal behaviors.

In addition to reporting abuse to the appropriate authorities, you may need to report the incident to the IRB-SBS as an Unexpected Adverse Event. Please see Unexpected Adverse Events for more information. 

What Are My Responsibilities to Report a Threat?

Mental health care providers are legally responsible to report a threat. The Code of Virginia defines a mental health care provider as the following:

  • certified substance abuse counselor
  • clinical psychologist
  • clinical social worker
  • licensed practical nurse
  • licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner
  • marriage and family therapist
  • mental health professional
  • mental health service provider
  • professional counselor
  • psychologist
  • registered nurse
  • school psychologist
  • social worker 

Although the code does not specifically list researchers, the participant may be considered a client or patient in your care. If the third party is a child, you have additional obligations to protect the child from physical and sexual abuse in general. Please see Child Abuse for more information.

You are not held liable for failing to report a threat if one of the following apply:

  • Breaching confidentiality with the limited purpose of protecting third parties by communicating the threats made by your client to potential third party victims or law-enforcement agencies or by taking any of the actions below.
  • Failing to predict, in the absence of a threat, that the client would cause the third party serious physical harm.
  • Failing to take precautions other than those described below to protect a potential third party victim from the client's violent behavior.
How Do I Report a Threat?

The Code of Virginia states that doing one of the following actions will satisfy your duty to report:

  • Seek involuntary admission of the client under Chapter 8 (§ 37.2-800 et seq.) of Title 37.2.
  • Make reasonable attempt to warn the potential victims or the parent or guardian of the potential victim if the potential victim is under the age of 18.
  • Make reasonable effort to notify a law-enforcement official having jurisdiction in the client's or potential victim's place of residence or place of work, or place of work of the parent or guardian if the potential victim is under age 18, or both.
  • Takes steps reasonably available to the provider to prevent the client from using physical violence or other means of harm to others until the appropriate law-enforcement agency can be summoned and takes custody of the client.

Provide therapy or counseling to the client or patient in the session in which the threat has been communicated until the mental health service provider reasonably believes that the client no longer has the intent or the ability to carry out the threat.