A forensic psychiatrist is a medical professional who offers his or her expertise in legal cases which involve mental health and mental health issues. While many think specifically of pathologists when they hear the word “forensic,” this term is used more generally to describe the application of the sciences to legal matters. Forensic psychiatrists also different from forensic psychologists. Although both deal with mental health issues and the legal system, they have different levels of training and approaches to their cases.
In order to become a forensic psychiatrist, someone must attend medical school to become a doctor and elect to take a residency in psychiatry. During the residency, the student learns about mental illness and the various approaches to treatment available, while qualifying as a doctor who can offer psychiatric help to patients in need. Entering the field of forensic psychiatry requires additional training in issues unique to this branch of the psychiatric field.
While a forensic psychiatrist is not a lawyer, he or she may be familiar with many aspects of the legal system, in order to work more effectively. Forensic psychiatrists can be retained in a legal case for a variety of reasons. They are often involved in competency hearings to determine whether or not someone is mentally capable of standing trial, and to assess someone's mental state at the time of a crime.
A forensic psychiatrist may also evaluate a victim or a defendant to produce evidence which can be used in court. For example, a minor requesting emancipation might ask for an examination by a forensic psychiatrist to prove that he or she is capable of living as an adult, or the parents of a child accused of murdering a classmate might ask a psychiatrist to evaluate the child to determine whether mental health played a role in the crime. The work of a forensic psychiatrist may also include treatment recommendations, including recommendations regarding sentencing, parole, or probation.
There is no precise legal definition of an “expert witness.” As a general rule, people use this term to describe individuals who are highly skilled in their field, and competent on the witness stand. Forensic psychiatrists can work for the defense or the prosecution, and they use their skills in a wide variety of ways, from recommending that a mentally incompetent criminal be institutionalized to helping a victim who may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition to working for the legal system, it is not uncommon for a forensic psychiatrist to opt to maintain a clinical practice. This ensures that his or her skills in the mental health field stay sharp, and it can provide a ground for research which may make the psychiatrist more appealing as a potential witness or consultant.