What Is Forensic Psychiatry?

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Sonya Bruner

Forensic science has gained incredible attention through popular crime investigation shows. People love to watch as the clues, and tell-tale signs of guilt unfold, playing along by making their guesses about what the evidence means. One of the most interesting of the forensic sciences is forensic psychiatry.

What Is Forensic Science?

Forensic science is the study of evidence relating to crimes. It's used in courts and other legal situations. Forensic science combines many scientific disciplines, including physics, chemistry, and biology.

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Forensic Psychiatry Definition

Forensic psychiatry is one of the branches of forensic science. It's medical science that spans the fields of law, criminal justice, and psychiatry. It's the use of psychiatric evaluations, consultations, and testimony to aid in the resolution of court cases and other legal matters.

Forensic Psychiatry Vs. Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychiatry and forensic psychology both deal with the human mind. However, a forensic psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can evaluate and testify about physical aspects of mental disorders, including their biological basis, psychotherapeutic considerations, and their relation to family and social issues. They can use laboratory tests and administer medications when needed.

A forensic psychologist has a Ph.D. in psychology rather than a medical degree. Their specialty may include giving psychological tests and providing psychotherapy and related expertise.

Who Pays The Forensic Psychiatrist's Fees?

Forensic psychiatrists are paid in various ways. Sometimes, a court or other public agency contracts them for their services. Usually, though, they're paid an hourly fee for working with an attorney or court.

What Forensic Psychiatrists Do

Some of the things forensic psychiatrists do include providing psychiatric consultation in legal matters, and providing expert testimony in court cases.
Forensic psychiatrists make contributions in several areas, including the following.

Family Law

Forensic psychiatrists can have an important impact on the way family legal situations are resolved. They can evaluate parents to see if they're fit and capable of having physical or legal custody of their child in a divorce. They can also examine a parent to see if they're capable of working, which can influence how much child support they may be required to pay. However, it is more likely that this work would be done by a forensic psychologist rather than a forensic psychiatrist.

Civil Law

Many lawsuits include claims of mental and emotional distress. When the court recognizes that mental damages have happened and should be compensated for, the awards can be substantial. Therefore, it's crucial that an expert assess what damages were done and what impact those damages are likely to have in the future. A forensic psychiatrist can conduct the evaluation or refute the conclusions of psychiatrists on the opposing side.

If someone has suffered from catastrophic injuries, they may have trouble managing funds. They may need a caregiver. A forensic psychiatrist can help by evaluating their need for such services. They can also determine if others are unduly influencing a person with such injuries in legal matters.

Discrimination cases, too, sometimes require the expertise of a forensic psychiatrist. If an employer or other entity is deemed guilty of discrimination, the forensic psychiatrist may be called on to determine the damages that resulted from the discrimination. Damages can include depression, anxiety, or the relapse of already diagnosed with mental health problems. The goal is to ensure that the person is compensated for the damages as well as given the means to pay for treatment if needed.

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Ability To Work

Often, the courts need to determine if someone can work. This can be important for:

  • Getting disability payments
  • Getting workers compensation payments and treatment
  • Getting protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Getting compensation for mental damages due to personal injury, harassment, or discriminations.

The forensic psychiatrist makes his assessment by conducting a face-to-face interview in most cases, as well as conducting psychometric testing and reviewing depositions and information gained through investigations.

They may need to give an opinion on:

  • Whether the person can work in any occupation
  • Whether the person can work in a specific occupation
  • Whether the person can work as long as specific accommodations are made for them
  • Whether their inability to work was caused by an injury or event or was a preexisting condition

Undue Influence

Adults have the right to make their own decisions without undue influence from others. However, when someone has a disability or is incompetent to make their own decisions, they must not be forced to take actions like changing their will or the terms of a trust.

A forensic psychiatrist can help determine if someone is coercing them to take such actions in improper ways. People who are harmed by undue influence may be taken advantage of because of mental incapacity due to:

  • Deteriorating physical and mental health
  • Involvement with a cult
  • Being held prisoner by someone who is charged with their care.

Fitness For Duty

In nearly all occupations, a certain level of competence is required to perform the duties required. If an employee can't meet the competency requirements, they may need to be removed from their position, given treatment, or transferred to a position they can reasonably manage.

Through forensic psychiatry, it can be determined whether they're fit for duty, and if so, whether they need to be given special considerations and accommodations. This may be done through consultation between a company representative and a forensic psychiatrist. In other cases, it must go to court, where the forensic psychiatrist may give expert testimony so that a judge or jury can make the determination.

Murder Cases

Forensic psychiatry often plays a part in the investigation of murders and the criminal cases that result from them. A forensic psychiatrist can work for the prosecution or the defendant. Their input may be extremely valuable in determining whether the defendant is fit to stand trial, able to cooperate with their defense team, as well as their mental state when the crime was taking place.

How Forensic Psychiatrists Remain Objective

Forensic psychiatrists must remain objective to come to the truth of whatever matter they're investigating. How do they do it? For one thing, they are paid an hourly wage that doesn't change regardless of whether the conclusions they draw help their client or not.

Second, they use tried and true scientific methods to make determinations as to liability, competence, and the existence of mental disorders. Because they have training in both psychiatry and neurology, they can assess both mental states and brain disorders and injuries. They look at the evidence, as any scientist would, and form their conclusions based on the facts of the case.

What Are Professional Ethics Expected From A Forensic Psychiatrist?

Forensic psychiatrists are held to high standards of professional ethics. They must follow the general ethics of the medical profession, including the Hippocratic Oath and the Oath of Geneva. They must meet the requirements laid out by their state licensing agency.

If they're associated with a professional organization such as the American Psychiatry Association or the American Medical Association, the forensic psychiatrist must adhere to their code of ethics as well. The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law is an organization that specifically addresses the field of forensic psychiatry and has its own code of ethics.

What Happens If A Forensic Psychiatrist Goes Against Professional Ethics?

An unscrupulous forensic psychiatrist could cause serious damage to someone who was jailed or otherwise punished as a result of biased testimony. So, what keeps the forensic psychiatrist honest?

There are many severe consequences for a forensic psychiatrist who behaves unethically in performing their duties. They may be publicly ousted from any professional organizations to which they have belonged. They may even lose their license or certification to practice psychiatry and be forced to leave the profession completely.

Can A Forensic Psychiatrist Help Me Deal With Mental Health Issues?

Typically, forensic psychiatrists don't work with people outside of court situations. They don't follow patients through the course of mental health treatment unless they need to gain information for the courts, defense lawyers, employers, or others with a legal interest in the case.

If you need to talk to a psychiatrist about a mental health issue outside of the legal arena, it's best to talk to a general psychiatrist or one who specializes in your type of mental health problems.

You can also talk to a therapist if you're concerned about the state of your mental health. Licensed counselors are available to help you at BetterHelp.com for private online therapy. When you go to the site, you'll be matched with a therapist best suited to helping you address your needs. Online therapy is convenient and affordable.

If you need to talk to someone about your mental health issues, talking to a therapist is often a positive first step. They can help you discover the core issues involved and determine what to do next in your quest for mental health.


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