Forensic psychiatry applies the scientific study of mental illness to questions of law. It is a branch of medicine. Forensic psychiatry developed from many of the same principles and goals as law. These principles and goals include defining acceptable behaviors and resolving differences of opinion about intent and action. Forensic psychiatrists often independently evaluate people involved in a legal proceeding in which the outcome could be influenced by mental health issues. Forensic psychology, a related field, applies the study of human behavior to questions of law.
Forensic psychiatrists may serve in criminal or civil (noncriminal) cases. In criminal cases, they may be asked to determine whether a person is competent (mentally able) and sane to stand trial. Insanity, by contrast, is a legal term for any severe mental disease or disorder that makes a person not responsible for his or her actions. Under most systems of criminal law, an insane person cannot be considered guilty of a crime. Forensic psychiatrists may also be asked to evaluate whether a person is a danger to themselves or others or even whether a defendant is competent to be executed. In civil cases, forensic psychiatrists may assist with mental health-related issues affecting parental rights, child custody, fitness for duty, and workers compensation.
In legal proceedings, forensic psychiatrists do not develop or maintain the same relationship with a patient that a general psychiatrist does. For example, the information a person provides to a forensic psychiatrist is not necessarily confidential. It may be given to judges, attorneys, and others involved in the legal proceeding. Information provided to a forensic psychiatrist may help a person’s legal situation. However, it may also be used against the person. Forensic psychiatrists strive for objectivity in their evaluations to avoid jeopardizing the fairness of the legal proceeding.
Forensic psychiatry and psychology differ in their focus and educational requirements. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists both must have university degrees. In the United States, forensic psychiatrists must complete medical school, four years of residency training, and one year of legal training. They must also pass a written national examination. Most forensic psychologists have a master’s or doctor’s degree. Many of these experts also conduct research and teach at universities and colleges.
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