Many years ago, when I worked as an admissions assistant for a graduate forensic psychology program, the number one inquiry I received from prospective students was whether the degree would allow them to become a forensic profiler. The proliferation of forensic psychology television shows and movies has led to a very narrow, yet popular, understanding of this field and what a forensic psychologist actually does. So, what is forensic psychology and what does a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist do in the real world?
What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology, according to the APA, is the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena – institutions, people working with the law, or people coming into contact with the law. This includes assessment, treatment, and evaluation. Forensic psychology also applies research and experimentation from other areas of psychology, such as social psychology, to legal settings.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists, then, work at the intersection of mental health and various legal contexts. They offer their professional expertise to aid the judicial system in civil and criminal matters and can be clinicians, scholars, consultants, and policymakers.
Their area of expertise can range from criminal competencies (such as evaluating whether a person charged with a crime has the mental capacity to participate in their legal proceeding) to civil competencies (does a person require a guardian or involuntary hospitalization) to understanding the impact of a trauma, such as workplace harassment or personal injury, on psychological functioning.
Forensic psychologists also provide expertise for partners in the legal system, such as attorneys who are selecting a jury or to judges by clarifying a psychological phenomenon that may have an impact on culpability or sentencing. Forensic psychologists may also be asked to provide information that helps decide custody proceedings or informs whether a person is a danger to themself or others.
Forensic psychologists can work in a variety of settings. Some work in inpatient hospital settings, juvenile detention facilities, jails, or prisons, providing evaluation and treatment to adolescents or adults in the criminal justice system. Some work in government or state agencies, providing assessment or consultation to law enforcement personnel. Some work in colleges or universities, conducting research or teaching coursework.
In private practice, forensic psychologists may be consulted by attorneys or agencies on a specific psycho-legal question. Perhaps the question is about what the impact of a motor vehicle accident was on a person’s psychological functioning in a personal injury case. Or the question might be whether there is data to support an insanity defense (that is, was the person criminally responsible for the crime they are accused of). Other possible questions or cases they may assist on might be school threat assessments, law enforcement personnel screenings, counseling for crime victims, and assessing whether a person facing immigration proceedings meets the criteria for asylum.
Forensic psychologists may have diverse training experiences, but for clinical practice, they must have a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology (a research degree), and they must be licensed to provide clinical services in the state in which they perform evaluations.
What does a Forensic Psychiatrist Do?
A forensic psychiatrist may offer many of the same services as a forensic psychologist, but their course of study and how they evaluate and treat clients are different. A forensic psychiatrist must receive a medical degree, pass their boards, and complete residency requirements. Their education and training enables them to prescribe medication, authorize brain scans and interpret them, prescribe and interpret lab results, and perform medical procedures.
A forensic psychiatrist may more often be called upon to assess mental disorders or the mental capacity of individuals for the benefit of the court, defense, or prosecution. They are also consulted on matters of psychiatric medicine or to conduct psychiatric evalutions.
A psychiatrist will lean heavily on medical science for their evaluations while a psychologist takes a non-medical approach, typically applying cognitive behavioral, dialetical behavioral, or stress inoculation therapies.
When seeking the services of a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist, it is always important to ask about their particular areas of expertise in deciding whether they are a good fit for your client’s needs. A forensic psychologist should be especially skilled at clinical assessment, interviewing, report writing, verbal communication, and case presentation.
The Ross Center is a premier mental health practice with offices in Washington, D.C. Vienna, Va, and New York, NY. We’ve provided world-class treatment to all ages for over 20 years. Our specialists are experts in helping patients suffering from anxiety and depression, OCD, panic attacks, insomnia, PTSD, and a variety of other mental health disorders.
Our team of forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are available to provide expert consultation, testimony and evaluation in civil, criminal and family legal proceedings. With extensive experience in cases involving both children and adults, our specialists conduct examinations and review cases with the highest level of integrity, sensitivity, and diagnostic skill.