A General Discussion on Risk
This episodes provides a general discussion on risk and threat, risk assessment, and the ways risk and threat are managed in various types of settings and facilities.
We distinguish the differences between risk and threat for the expressed purpose of providing clarity in this discussion as well as clarity between the concepts involved. We recognize that the terms are used interchangeably, but argue that the definitions are not.
Risk – Risk is something that a client encounters or experiences that presses them toward perilous and hazardous behavior from which they and others may be harmed. In other words, the client’s susceptibilities and vulnerabilities
lead to adverse outcomes. Because risk relates to the client’s susceptibilities and vulnerabilities, it can often be ameliorated or treated. Risk is usually assessed using clinically-guided research-based approach.
Threat – Threat is a declaration or an expression of intent to do harm, inflict punishment, to menace, or to act out violently against someone or something. Threat is something a person does that results in fear or harm to others. Threat relates to a person’s potential, as well as intent, to harm others and property. Specifically, we are actually speaking of threat when we ask questions like, what is the short-term and long-term probability a behavior will repeat? How imminent is the harmful behavior? What is the likely harm that will result? Is it plausible that the person can commit the act? Those who menace or threaten to do harm are managed through interventions like arrest and incarceration, rather than through clinical efforts. Threat is usually assessed using an actuarial approach.
Risk and threat are interrelated, but nonetheless different concepts with different vantage points. This ultimately brings us to one of two referral questions. The first centers on identifying a treatment protocol that will reduce the risk of an individual putting themselves or others in harm’s way. These efforts lead to treatment plans that seek to help the person live more independently or one day live successfully in the community. The second referral sets the needs of the individual aside and asks what steps are necessary to ensure society is safe? These questions are asked when we are thinking about whether we can safely release a person or what level of supervision is needed. Even though the tasks of risk and threat assessment may look at many of the same variables, the context is different. Risk, by definition, has an inherent clinical focus, in which the target behavior, be it violence, sex offense, or self-harm, is viewed as a product of some underlying factor, such as a disorder or stressor which makes the person susceptible to putting themselves and others at risk. Threat, on the other hand, conjures concern for potential victims and public safety, it frames the individual more as an offender than a client or recipient. Obviously, threat assessment has more utility in criminal justice settings, where, for example, parole and probation officers, as well as police officers, constantly grapple with managing individuals who present considerable threat to the community. While criminal justice efforts often go about this through interventions that lower and raise the level of supervision or incapacitation, mental health professionals tackle risk through interventions that aim to reduce the severity of the client’s symptoms and suffering.
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