Forensic PsychiatryAnd Forensic Psychology

Updated November 15, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people have a basic idea of forensic science because of how it is represented in popular crime investigation shows, where we can watch the characters figure out who committed a crime and how it was done. As in television shows, forensic scienceis used in real life in courts and other legal situations, usually as a means of gathering evidence for use in criminal cases. Forensic science combines many scientific disciplines, including physics, chemistry, and biology.

Two other branches of forensic science are forensic psychology andforensic psychiatry. Each of these disciplines deals with the human mind within the context of the judicial system. However, there are some important differences between them.

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Forensic Psychiatry Vs. Forensic Psychology

A forensic psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) who can evaluate parties to a legal case and testify about different aspects of mental illnesses, including their biological basis, psychotherapeutic considerations, and their relation to family and social issues. Forensic psychiatrists can use laboratory tests and administer medications when needed. A forensic psychiatrist may be called in to assist with a case that involves a plea of insanity, or they may testify about a person’s competency to stand trial or to manage their own affairs.

A forensic psychologist has a doctorate in psychology (either Ph.D. or Psy.D.) rather than a medical degree. Their specialty may include giving psychological tests and providing psychotherapy and related expertise. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are not allowed to prescribe medication. A forensic psychologist may provide services advocating for one of the parties to the legal case, or they may give expert testimony at trial about any matters where one or the other party’s psychological state might be an issue.

Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are paid in various ways. Sometimes, a court or other public agency contracts them for their services. Alternatively, they may be paid an hourly fee by one of the parties in the case.

What Forensic PsychiatristsAnd Psychologists Do

Forensic psychiatrists and psychologistsusually providerelevant consultation in legal matters, andmay also provide expert testimony.Below is a discussion of some of the ways a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist might contribute to a court case.

Family Law

Family law is one area where a forensic psychologist might be called in to help. They can have an important impact on the way family legal situations are resolved. A forensic psychologist might evaluate parents to see whether they're fit and capable of having physical or legal custody of their child in a divorce.

These types of evaluations might be donewhen one parent accuses the other of being unstable or unfit. Another reason why one or both of the parties might call in a forensic psychologist is when they have been unable to resolve custody issues themselves, and the case may be going to trial. The psychologist might be hired by one or the other parties to the custody case, or they might be appointed by the judge or magistrate who is overseeing the case.

Civil Law

Many lawsuits include claims of mental and emotional distress. When the court recognizes that mental or emotional damages have happened and should be compensated for, the awards can be substantial. In order for the court to reach a fair decision, experts will testify to 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 been severely injured or has mental health issues that make day-to-day decisions about things like finances difficult for them, they may need a guardian. A forensic psychiatrist can help by evaluating their need for such services. The forensic psychiatristcan also determine if others are unduly influencing a person with such injuries or conditions in legal matters.

Discrimination cases also sometimes require the expertise of a forensic psychiatrist. If an employer or other entity is accused of discrimination, the forensic psychiatrist may be called on to determine the mental or emotional damages that resulted from the discrimination. Such damages can include depression, anxiety, or a relapse into previously diagnosed mental health conditions. The goal is to provide the court with evidence from an impartial expert so that a fair judgement can be reached.

Ability To Work

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

  • getting disability payments
  • getting worker’s compensation payments and treatment
  • getting safety afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • getting compensation for mental damages due to personal injury, harassment, or discrimination

Evaluations in disability cases may be done by a forensic psychologist or by a forensic psychiatrist. These experts make their assessments by conducting a face-to-face interview with the claimant 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. The right to make decisions can be especially important with regard to making a will or a trust, or making valuable gifts. In some cases, the person being coerced may have difficulty making their own decisions because of physical or mental health conditions or because they have become involved with a cult. Such situations may make them vulnerable to exploitation by others. A forensic psychiatrist can help determine whether the testator has been coerced to create their will or trust either to unduly favor certain people or to deny them an inheritance.

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.

Violent Crimes

Forensic psychiatry and psychology often plays a part in the investigation of murders, arsons, rapes, and the criminal cases that result from them. A forensic psychiatrist or psychologist can work either for the prosecution or for the defendant. An expert’sinput may be extremely valuable in determining things such as whether the defendant is fit to stand trial and able to cooperate with their defense team, as well as to testify to the defendant’s mental state when the crime was taking place.

Curious If Forensic Psychiatry Could Be The Career For You?

Professional Ethics

Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are held to high standards of professional ethics. They must follow the general ethics of theirprofession, and must meet the requirements laid out by their state licensing agency.

If a forensic psychiatrist is associated with a professional organization such as the American Psychiatric Association or the American Medical Association, they must adhere to those associations’ codes 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. Forensic psychologists may be part of the American Psychological Association, which has its own standards for the practice of forensic psychology.

Forensic psychiatrists are expected to remain objective so that they can come to the truth of whatever matter they're investigating. They use a combination of observation and knowledge of medicine and human psychology to make determinations about things like liability, competence, and the possible effects of mental illnesses on one or the other party to the case. Because they have training in both psychiatry and medicine, 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.

Forensic psychologists operate in a similar way, although they are not qualified to make medical determinations. Forensic psychologists will interview the relevant parties to the case and review any other evidence, and use that and their knowledge of psychology to present expert testimony or make any recommendations the court might need them to make.

There are many severe consequences for a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist 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, and be forced to leave the profession completely.

Could A Forensic Psychiatrist Help Me?

Typically, forensic psychiatrists and psychologists don't work with people outside of court situations. They don't follow patients through a course of mental health treatment unless it is needed to gain information for the courts, attorneys, employers, or others with a legal interest in the case.If you need to talk to a psychiatrist about a personal mental health issue that’snot connected to any legal proceedings, you may wish to find a general psychiatrist or one who specializes in your type of mental health condition. If you are involved in litigation, you may wish to consult with your attorney about whether a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist might be helpful to your case.

If you are having personal issues with your mental health and are not involved with litigation, you may not need to see a psychiatrist. A qualifed licensed therapist might also be able provide the care you might need, although if medication might help you, you will need to get a prescription from a psychiatrist or other medical doctor, because therapists are not allowed to prescribe medications.

You can choose to meet with your therapist face to face in their office, or you can find one who does online therapy through a service such as 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 may be more affordable than traditional face-to-face counseling. Studies have also shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment.


Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists perform important services in court cases where the mental health of one or more of the parties might be a factor. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists typically do not see patients outside of the bounds of legal proceedings. If you are involved in litigation, you may wish to speak to your attorney about whether a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist might be needed in your case. But if you are having personal issues and feel the need to talk to someone about them, making an appointment with a therapist is often a positive first step. A qualified, licensed therapist can help you explore what you are struggling with, and determine what to do next in your quest for mental health.

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