Breach of Confidentiality

Janet Coburn
3 min readJun 2, 2024


One of the things that people who see a therapist dread is a breach of confidentiality. Fortunately, it almost never happens. Therapists have client-therapist confidentiality that forbids it. It’s like the seal of the confessional for priests.

There’s an exception, however, and that’s the Tarasoff warning. Here’s how it came to be.

Way back in 1969, a young woman named Tatiana Tarasoff, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was murdered. The killer was Prosenjit Poddar, also a student at the university. They knew each other and had gone on several dates. Unfortunately, as happens way too often, the couple had differing opinions on where the relationship should go.

Poddar became obsessed with Tarasoff. She was no longer interested. So he began stalking her. He had an emotional crisis and began seeing a therapist at the university medical center.

So far, it’s a pretty typical story of a relationship, a breakup, and an extreme emotional reaction. However, it soon became much more than that.

One day, Poddar admitted to his therapist that he wanted to kill Tarasoff. (He didn’t refer to her by name, but her identity was clear). The therapist said that, if Poddar kept issuing death threats, he would have to be hospitalized. Poddar stopped coming to therapy.

The therapist was left with a dilemma as to what he should do next.

The therapist and his supervisor decided to write a letter to campus police regarding the death threats. The police interviewed Poddar in the room he shared with Tarasoff’s brother. When Poddar denied everything and said he would stay away from Tatiana, the investigation was halted. The supervisor instructed the therapist to destroy all his case notes.

Of course, Poddar continued stalking Tarasoff and confronted her. When she tried to run away, he stabbed her with the knife he was carrying, killing her. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder (though he had tried to plea-bargain down to manslaughter). He served five years and was deported to his native India.

Tarasoff’s parents sued the university and the therapists on the grounds that they should have warned their daughter about the death threats. The therapists countered with the client-therapist confidentiality argument and won. Later, however, the case was retried and this time, in 1976, the Tarasoffs prevailed.

Since then, over half of US states have enacted “Tarasoff laws.” Others leave the decision up to the therapist. And Maine, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Nevada have specifically ruled that Tarasoff laws don’t apply there. The laws are still controversial. For one thing, the university therapists did call the campus police. For another, it leaves the burden of deciding whether a threat is credible solely on the therapist. And it left it up to the therapist whether to breach confidentiality. And there have been debates on whether Tarasoff warnings should be given regarding threats of physical violence that fall short of murder.

So, what’s a therapist to do? Warn clients that if they make threats, they’ll be reported? That can have the effect of causing the client to leave therapy. Guess — and it really is a guess — whether a threat is real or perhaps a fantasy? Err on the side of caution? Give priority to the confidentiality requirement? Risk a malpractice lawsuit brought by the client if the therapist does report the potential threat? A wrongful death suit for not acting in time?

Which prevails: the duty to warn a potential victim or the duty to preserve confidentiality? And is it a duty to warn or a duty to protect? (These distinctions have been made in some places.) We’ve become used to the phrase “harm to self or others” when it comes to involuntary treatment. But this question goes further. What does a therapist owe to a specific individual who may be killed? Sectioning the client? Reporting the threat to the police? Directly warning the potential victim?

It’s an awful lot to place on the shoulders of a therapist: determine the reality of a threat, make a prediction about future violent behavior, and determine an appropriate response. Weighing patient confidentiality and harm or death to another is a huge burden. But in the interests of there never being another Tarasoff-style murder, I’m coming down on the side of the duty to warn.



Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at and