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Forensic psychiatrists and forensic psychologists are both careers in the criminal justice system. However, each one has unique responsibilities not associated with the other. Both occupations require divergent educational directions as well.
Usually, a forensic psychiatrist will be required to graduate from a four-year medical school before undergoing extensive evaluations and testing to pass the boards to receive a medical license. In addition, the forensic psychiatrist will need to fulfill all the necessary residency requirements just as a medical physician would.
Alternatively, a forensic psychologist typically obtains a PhD in psychology. They often specialize in criminal justice and forensics. While a forensic psychiatrist is a medical degree, a forensic psychologist is a research degree. Often times, when achieving the research degree, the student is exposed to a huge array of research material that helps broaden their forensic psychology career.
Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are active in different areas of the justice system. However, both typically are highly active with the criminal population at some point in their career. Many times, they deal directly with the mental health of a criminal suspect. From different perspectives, the psychologist and the psychiatrist will determine the state of mental illness of the inmate.
Forensic psychiatrists have specialized training to help them identify and categorize the various symptoms associated with the inmate’s mental disorders. It is usually their work that is utilized in legal proceedings as a way to assess and evaluate the suspect, a victim or a witness if it is deemed appropriate by the court system.
By the very nature of the type of work they perform, the forensic psychologist utilizes their services much different from those performed by the forensic psychiatrist. The psychologist is usually responsible at assessing whether or not the defendant has suffered some type of mental disorder. This typically happens before the trial even begins. This is not to suggest that the forensic psychiatrist cannot determine the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Both have the education and tools to be called to the stand as an expert witness in the case.
However, based on ItsGov.com, it is the forensic psychologist that tends to focus on evaluating and measuring the mental capacity of the criminal defendant, especially as it directly applies to the crime involved in the case.1 It is usually their determination that makes an assumption of whether or not the defendant is found to have a sound mind. Still, the investigation and evaluation of the psychiatrist might have turned up evidence that contradicts the psychologist.
When both the psychologist and the psychiatrist work in the capacity as forensic assessors and evaluators, it is typically for a brief amount of time. They are generally hired by the court, by the defendant, or the prosecution in the case. Their performance is typically based on a narrow scope of work, by the hour as is needed to fulfill the requirements of the case. This is much different from handling patients in a clinical setting, when they are called upon to assist the patient by helping them improve overall well-being.
Both professions are experts in their own right. Each one has specialized expertise and a high level of training. However, the psychiatrist is trained to diagnose and treat individuals using a variety of tools not available to the psychologist. When they are not called upon by the courts in a forensic capacity, they can prescribe medication, prescribe and interpret brain scans, monitor lab results, and perform medical procedures. Generally, they use the science of advanced medicine whenever approaching any type of problem, evaluation or assessment.
Psychologists at the doctorate level (PSYD/PhD) are usually highly skilled in studies that are not used by psychiatrists. This includes psychological testing. At the doctorate level, many psychologists typically have advanced degrees far beyond their bachelor’s. Usually the program is a four-year training that is rooted deeply in theory and statistics. They typically take a non-medical approach when assessing, evaluating and treating patients. In a forensic capacity, they will rely heavily on cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral treatment, and stress inoculation therapy.
In the Legal Arena
Typically, the psychiatrist is called into the legal arena in a forensic capacity when the court system relies on teaching a “trier of fact” (the jury, the judge, the magistrate or hearing board) necessary medical science. In this capacity, the forensic psychiatrist can help the judge or jury in applying the facts pertinent to the case to the available science to help and reach a legal opinion, a conclusion, a verdict or decision. Alternatively, forensic psychology tends to be based on behavioral analysis that is crucial to law enforcement. They can help develop a profile of an unknown suspect in a criminal case.
Both forensic psychiatry and psychology are rewarding careers that are highly respected in the criminal justice system.