Forensic Psychiatry

What is Forensic Psychiatry?

Forensic psychiatry deals with both psychiatry and the law. Doctors in this subspecialty of psychiatry study, interpret, and establish an individual’s state of mental health when legal matters are being addressed. Forensic psychiatrists must have a medical degree as well as legal training in order to give their expert opinion during court cases.

Forensic psychiatry assesses an individual’s criminal and/or civil competence. For example, forensic psychiatrists help determine whether or not you can admit an individual to medical treatment (mental or physical) against their will. Lawyers may call upon forensic psychiatrists to objectively evaluate during a court case a defendant’s mental capabilities, or lack thereof, while the crime they were accused of took place. Defendants can undergo evaluation whether or not they have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Some areas in which the mental health and legal system overlap where forensic psychiatrists are often called upon are:

  • Competency to Stand Trial: This evaluation decides if the accused can consult with his/her lawyer or sit through court proceedings and rationally understand what is happening.
  • Mental State Opinion: This type of evaluation asks the forensic psychiatrist to give an objective opinion of the accused’s mental state during the crime based completely upon the provided evidence.
  • Sentence Mitigation: Forensic psychiatrists can help jurors understand the accused’s mental illness and help the jury decide on an appropriate sentence for the accused.
  • Personal injury evaluation: Assessing a person’s competence to operate a motor vehicle, or their perceived ability to harm themselves or others.
  • Child custody disputes and visitation rights: Parents with severe mental illnesses can be evaluated to determine if they can provide a stable, positive, and loving environment for their children.
  • Capital murder sentencing evaluation: In states like Texas, where capital punishment is legal, there are measures in place to prevent the mentally ill and mentally disabled from receiving capital punishment for their actions. This type of evaluation will determine if the accused is too severally ill or disabled to be held 100% accountable for their actions, therefore exempting them from capital punishment.

Other areas in which forensic psychologists may be called upon include:

  • Murder cases
  • Malpractice
  • Human rights
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Mental disability


What does a Forensic Psychiatrist do?

A forensic psychologist is called upon in almost every movie or TV show involving a dramatic court case. If you’re a fan of Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit, you’ve seen B.D. Wong, the forensic psychiatrist who works to get into the minds of criminal suspects in order to help solve crimes. Although forensic psychiatry has gained ground in the popular consciousness (mostly because of its portrayal in the media), forensic psychiatry in reality is not quite as dramatic as it is portrayed in television programs. In reality, you won’t see a forensic psychiatrist working with the cops to catch the criminals. Normally, it’s a much more limited role. For instance, forensic psychiatrists do not go into court to make decisions in lieu of the legal system – instead, they are there to help advise juries and judges so they can make more accurate decisions.

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