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Forensic psychiatry is the joining of psychiatry and law. Psychiatry is a medical study, focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. It is a combination of psychology, legal, and medical practices.
A forensic psychiatrist has a strong background in psychology and law, but has also attended medical school, allowing him to treat patients and prescribe medications. Most forensic psychiatrists are physicians first, and then they enter the psychiatry field, and only after several years in each of those fields do they enter forensic psychiatry. Medical students can choose to spend some of their residency in a psychiatry specialty, and then look for psychiatry fellowships after they have completed the residency.
There are many uses for forensic psychiatry. It is often used in criminal court cases. A forensic psychiatrist can determine if the suspect has the mental capacity to be tried. If the suspect is not aware of the crime that he or she has committed, or cannot understand the consequences of that crime, it is illegal for the suspect to be tried and sentenced. A forensic psychiatrist may also help to determine the competency of an individual to raise children, make a will, or consent to medical care.
Forensic psychiatry may also be used to support the facts of a case. A forensic psychiatrist may be called in as an expert witness, testifying about the facts of the case, the defendant, or anything else that may be relevant. A forensic psychiatrist's testimony, although unbiased, can greatly sway the jury's opinion, and ultimately affect the outcome of the trial.
Another aspect of forensic psychiatry involves working with criminals and victims. In many cases, a criminal's actions may be, in part, due to mental illness. While facing the consequences for a crime is important, it is just as important that the perpetrator receives treatment for any disorders he or she may have. The victims of crimes, and their families, can also benefit from seeking treatment from a forensic psychiatrist. Victims often have difficulty returning to normal lives after the crime, especially if the crime involved violence or sexual trauma.
Forensic psychiatry is a challenging field, requiring continuous education to keep current with new research and an ability to communicate in a clear, concise way. During their careers, most forensic psychiatrists will assist in assessments, research, write, teach, testify, and, mostly, treat patients. In fact, the majority of forensic psychiatrists will spend more time working with individual patients than they will testifying in court cases. They do not help to solve crimes, visit crime scenes, or work with hostage negotiators, as some popular media may portray. These jobs are left up to the police officers and other specialists who have been trained for those duties.
Forensic psychiatrists also often work in mental hospitals on the forensic units. That is, their day to day job is to treat those who are mentally ill and have committed a crime. They may also help evaluate patients to determine if they are mentally ill and are competent to stand trial. This usually means they are able to understand the charges and proceedings against them.
A good forensic psychiatrist can usually quickly tell the difference between a defendant who "nutted up," as the parlance goes, and one who is genuinely mentally ill. Sometimes they make a mistake in their determinations, but not often.
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