When Should a Patient's Violent Thoughts Trigger Action?

Doug Brunk

March 03, 2021

When patients relay their fantasies during psychotherapy sessions, those visions are often rooted in frustration or wish fulfillment, according to Jessica Ferranti, MD.

Dr Jessica Ferranti

"[Sigmund] Freud talked about how our fantasy life is invested with large amounts of energy and interest and conveys a true essence of our personality — a truth about what we're thinking and who we are," Ferranti, a forensic psychiatrist in the division of psychiatry and the law at the University of California, Davis, said during an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association.

"Fantasy life is one of the most important conveyances of information that we can get from our patients, whether in the general office or in the forensic realm — if we can access it, which is difficult, because fantasies are often intensely personal. They fall into the category of very high resistance topics with many patients."

Psychiatrists routinely ask about violent thoughts and homicidal ideation, but violent fantasies — especially those that are sexually violent in nature — can be a warning sign of future danger. Ferranti defined violent fantasies as those depicting the use of physical force with the intent to injure another person or destroy property.

"This would be an individual who fantasizes about sadistically raping a woman, for instance," said Ferranti, who directs the UC Davis Workplace Safety and Psychiatric Assessment Clinic. "That is an ominous and psychopathological sign in terms of the preoccupation with that kind of violent crime."

Aggression, on the other hand, "is a very broad spectrum, with actions like assertion, interpersonal confrontation, or verbal expressions that are angry or hostile, but that do not necessarily lead to violence."

Ferranti acknowledged that today's rushed clinical environment makes it challenging for psychiatrists and psychologists to get patients to share detailed fantasies they may be harboring.

"It's very difficult to get to deeper material with patients, unless potentially you have more intensive therapy going on, like a psychotherapeutic relationship where you see the patient frequently, an intensive treatment, [or] perhaps an inpatient hospitalization or a partial day program." The key is that "the patient gets comfortable with relaying more of the truth about what they're experiencing," she said. "In some cases, this occurs during the forensic evaluation, because we have the luxury to do very lengthy evaluations. Under the stress of being with another person in the room for many hours, oftentimes the patient will disclose things eventually.

"I've been a forensic psychiatrist for the better part of 12 years, and I can tell you after hundreds of evaluations I've never had a person not speak. That's a good thing, because a principle of the work we do, or talk therapy even, is that the things that we can put into words, we are less likely to act out. When we lose symbolism, the ability to represent things in our mind and speak about them, we are at greater risk of collapsing into the real and acting on the things we think about."

Statutory reporting duties vary from state to state. In California, mandatory reporting duties include child abuse, elder abuse, abuse or neglect of developmentally disabled individuals, domestic violence, and victims of a gunshot wound. "Failing to report any of these crimes is a misdemeanor in California," she said. "With all these statutory reporting duties, we have no legal obligation to inform the patient of the report. Under California law, patients do not have the right to refuse the report. These are reports we make in our best judgment, whether the patient is happy about that or not."

What happens if your patient confesses to a past crime? "There's no legal duty to report this," Ferranti said. "The general rule is, unless there's a current person who's at risk, it would be violating confidentiality to report. This includes murder, bank robbery, and sexual assault. In addition, you cannot admit a patient to an inpatient setting to help them avoid arrest, even if you think the act in question was due to symptoms of a mental disorder, disease, or defect. You can actually be charged with aiding and abetting a criminal."

In the 1976 landmark case Tarasoff v the Regents of the University of California, the California Supreme Court ruled that psychiatrists and other therapists have a duty to do what is reasonably necessary to protect third parties if a patient presents a serious risk of violence to another person.

"Reasonable steps may include warning the third party, notifying police, detaining and hospitalizing the patient, intensifying the treatment to a higher level of care or more frequent outpatient appointments, removing weapons, and changing the medication therapy," Ferranti said. "The more you can do of these, the better."

She also discussed the concept of foreseeability, which she defined as the reasonable anticipation that harm or injury is likely to result from an act or omission to act.

"This is the malpractice standard for negligence," she said. "In other words, was it foreseeable by a reasonable psychiatrist that this person was going to hurt someone else or themselves?" Another landmark case, Jablonski Pahls v the United States broadened the reporting obligations of psychiatrists. In this 1983 case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that mental health professionals have to do more than warn foreseeable victims of an imminent danger of potential harm; they must involuntarily hospitalize the dangerous individual and consult that person's prior records.

There is no sure-fire way to predict when an individual's underlying violent fantasies are likely to be acted on, but Ferranti mentioned several behaviors that should raise alarm. One is a heightened physiological arousal when the person discusses the fantasy, such as rapid heartbeat or sweating; or physical posturing, such as clenching their fists or pounding their hands on an object as they tell you about it. You also want to determine the persistence of the fantasy.

"Can the patient think about it?" she asked. "Can they retain the ability to symbolize and separate themselves from necessarily doing whatever it is they think about?" You also want to determine the individual's propensity for externalizing behaviors. "Here we're talking about cluster B personality group patients — antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline patients who by virtue of their aggressivity titer and difficulties with anger, have a higher propensity for acting out and acting violently."

Then there's the concept of foreseeability. "Ask yourself, how likely is it that this could actually happen, based on the known risk factors and what you know about the patient?" Ferranti said. "Past history of violence is also very important. What people have done once before, they're likely to do again."

A good violence risk assessment can help you mitigate the potential for one of your patients to carry out harm to self or to others. Key risk factors include psychopathy, past violence, substance abuse, specific person/entity threatened, a history of impulsivity, unemployment, military history, gun possession, and the presence of paranoid and/or persecutory ideation or delusions.

"Know your specific state statutes and case law," Ferranti concluded. "Delaying Tarasoff notification may indicate no need to violate confidentiality. If you think it's warranted, do it without delay. Documentation is important when you're consulting with therapists back and forth. You also want to attempt to obtain prior records and release only information that is required in a case of violence toward others. The details of the therapy or diagnosis are likely not relevant."

Ferranti has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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