Editorial | Lawsuit against UI Counseling Center isn’t enough

A therapist’s office should be a safe environment, a place in which people can share whatever is on their mind. Ranging anywhere from the stress of school to darker thoughts about harming oneself or others, therapists are equipped with the right tools for many situations. 

But what happens when certain dark thoughts once shared with a therapist turn into reality? When someone’s fantasy of murder leads to the death of an innocent victim? 

The family of Yingying Zhang took on these sorts of questions with a lawsuit filed against the University Counseling Center on Jan. 27, claiming the social workers who met with Brendt Christensen were negligent in their care.

This suit, while potentially just in the moral sense, has no grounds in a legal one. The focus should instead be on changing laws surrounding therapist-patient confidentiality.   

Christensen, who was convicted last summer of murdering visiting scholar Yingying Zhang in 2017, went to the Counseling Center several times months before kidnapping Zhang. During some of his appointments, he mentioned having homicidal thoughts and admitted to having bought items to carry out a murder but said he ended up returning them. 

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Before Christensen’s trial began in June 2019, the Zhang family filed a lawsuit against the University claiming that the Counseling Center neglected its duty, but it was ultimately thrown out, leading the Zhang family to refile through the state in January. 

During one of his appointments in March 2017, when Christensen admitted to purchasing and returning items to carry out a murder, he was asked if he had any specific targets in mind to which he said he didn’t. 

According to a Huffington Post article, therapists may be forced to report their patients if they show any threat to themselves or others. However, to do so there must be an intent and specific target told to the therapist, which was missing in Christensen’s case. 

It’s understandable the understaffed University Counseling Center may not have had the resources to follow up on every single patient, to give Christensen the attention and help he needed.

So the Counseling Center did nothing wrong. However, it did nothing right either. Had the therapists at the center realized Christensen needed more help than what was given to him, Zhang might still be alive today. This isn’t the sort of mistake one can shrug off either. A solid “Oops, my bad” and an “I’ll get ‘em next time” just isn’t enough.

But tying up funds and energy in a lawsuit is a waste of time. Instead, this case illustrates the necessity of a law that forces therapists to report violent thoughts and ideas even when a specific victim hasn’t been chosen.  

The community owes it to Zhang and her family to ensure this happens to no one else. And the first step is restructuring the system that allowed it in the first place.