Tennessee Bill to Expand Reporting of Threats by Mental Health Providers



In a significant legislative development, a Tennessee bill could broaden the scope of threats mental health providers are obligated to report. Currently, state law mandates mental healthcare professionals to report threats made by patients against specific individuals.

However, the proposed bill seeks to extend this reporting requirement to include threats against groups such as daycares, religious institutions, or the families of individuals struggling with mental illness.

Current Reporting Requirements

Under the existing Tennessee law, mental health providers are mandated to report any threats patients make that are directed at specific individuals. This duty to warn is a crucial aspect of their responsibility as healthcare providers.

Robin Weagley, Chief Executive Officer of Erlanger Behavioral Health in Chattanooga, emphasized the current obligations, stating, “We, as healthcare providers, already have an obligation to report and a duty to warn under certain circumstances.”

However, the current law does not explicitly address threats made against groups of people, leaving a gap in reporting requirements.

Expanding Tennessee Bill

The proposed amendment to Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 33-3-206 aims to fill this gap by requiring mental health professionals to report concerning behavior from patients not only to local law enforcement but also to local crisis response services. This expanded reporting would encompass threats against groups, introducing an additional layer of vigilance in identifying potential risks.

Weagley expressed the view that this expanded reporting aligns with the responsibilities mental health professionals already shoulder. “You’re always looking for what the needs are for the services, what the risks are, and how to mitigate that through treatment and in other courses,” Weagley noted.

Notably, the proposed bill includes provisions addressing the liability of mental health providers. According to the text, providers would not be held liable for damages, prosecution, or disciplinary action by a regulatory board, providing legal safeguards for professionals reporting threats under the new provisions. This stands in contrast to the absence of liability mentioned in the current law.

Changes to the Definition of Threats

The existing law requires reporting of “an actual threat of serious bodily harm or death against a reasonably identifiable victim or victims.” In contrast, the proposed amendment broadens this definition, requiring a report if providers learn of “intent for the actual threat of bodily harm against a clearly identified victim, or intent for the actual threat of bodily harm against a group of people.” Providers must also determine that the service recipient has the apparent ability to carry out such an act.

Impact on Mental Health Services

Weagley expressed confidence that, if approved, the proposed changes would not significantly alter Erlanger’s mental health services. “From whatever angles, I think that the due process will happen. And there’ll be a lot of conversations and I’m privileged to be a part of that,” Weagley stated.

National Landscape

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that both Tennessee and Alabama already have “duty to warn” laws. In contrast, North Carolina does not have such laws, and Georgia’s physicians only have a “duty to protect” after a patient has been hospitalized.

As the proposed bill makes its way through the legislative process, it underscores the evolving considerations surrounding mental health reporting and the balance between public safety and patient confidentiality. The potential changes in reporting requirements could set a precedent for mental health legislation in other states.

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