If you’re been listening to the podcast for a while then you know I absolutely love forensic and criminal psychology. But what is forensic psychopathology? As well as maybe the better question might be how does it differ to forensic psychology, so that’s the focus of this great podcast episode as we look at this new, exciting area. If you enjoy forensic psychology, you don’t want to miss it!
This episode has been sponsored by Forensic Psychology Collection. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What is Forensic Psychopathology?
Generally speaking, as supported by Ray (2018), psychopathology is used in clinical psychology to talk about mental health conditions. As well as it is the scientific study of them through investigations and specialised treatments where experts determine the causes of the conditions and how to treat them. Then there is a subfield within this subfield that investigates how mental conditions influence our behaviours and thoughts.
Therefore, forensic psychopathology is something a lot more nuanced and challenging in my opinion. Since this field takes the study of psychopathology and combines it with the legal system.
Resulting in a discipline that focuses on psychopathological theories and practices and how they apply within the criminal justice system.
And I must confess them reading some of the literature in this field is just headshaking, because as you know my background is mainly in clinical psychology and the field is turning towards more neutral and less blaming and damaging language. So with most of this research uses words like mental disorder, mental problems and more. It is very headshaking.
The Difference Between Forensic Psychology and Forensic Psychopathology
Now if you’re like me then you probably don’t see the immediate difference between forensic psychopathology and your everyday forensic psychology.
Nevertheless, forensic psychology has a wider focus than mental conditions, and even when forensic psychology focuses on mental health and conditions. It tends to focus on mental conditions in the legal arena (the courtroom and mechanisms like insanity pleas) and practising clinical psychology in a forensic setting. Like prisons (Ward, 2013).
In addition, forensic psychology experts conduct their psychology assessments on people who are involved in the legal system. For example, victims, criminals and other people. With these experts being highly skilled individuals in clinical methods and they have experience with the law as well.
This is absolutely critical when we bear in mind that forensic psychologists have both a law and ethical responsibility for the cases like insanity and competency hearings, child abuse and custody cases, psychological evaluations, victims of crimes, counselling services, offender programmes as well as diagnosis and treatment plans.
Furthermore, as we’ve mentioned on the podcast before, forensic psychologists are highly trained with them having to learn a PhD, be licenced and be board certified by a professional body in order to do their jobs. As well as they absolutely must have experience with the law as their job actually requires them to consult, advise and provide professional expertise within the courtroom.
More On Forensic Psychopathology
Now we all have a better understanding of how forensic psychology is different in this case. Let’s refocus on what psychopathology actually involves.
Therefore, whilst forensic psychopathology has elements and strongly draws on clinical and psychological applications within the legal system, the entire aim of this subfield is different to forensic psychology. Since the main aim of forensic psychopathology is focused on the accurate diagnosis of mental health conditions so they can accurately assess, diagnose and create the best treatment plans before interpreting the information and handing over their report to the courts.
One such example of their work could be that experts are required from time to time to investigate abnormal mental processes (like thinking and reasoning) that might influence a person’s judgement for committing a crime. This information could be used to determine if the accused can be held responsible for the crime, convicted or whether their condition should be a significant factor when the court makes its decision.
Consequently, it is absolutely critical that psychopathologists study mental conditions to determine how the condition will affect a person’s behaviour and thought, especially when it comes to committing crimes.
Forensic Psychopathology Analysis and Culpability
When it comes to understanding psychopathology a person’s ability to make decisions based on their judgement, insight, morality and reasoning are critical. However, their capacity to do such things can be impaired because of psychological reasons. Like neurological, mental and physiological conditions as well as drugs (both illegal and legal).
As a result, a forensic psychopathologist has to evaluate a person’s criminal responsibility due to these factors and they are liable for reviewing these cases that can affect the court’s decision making.
For example, Dettermeyer et al. (2013) discussed and concluded that criminal responsibility should be thought about and examined carefully and independently to ensure that statutory provisions that regulate age requirements are met. As age is another critical factor when it comes to criminal responsibility in addition to competency and psychopathology.
The Challenges In Forensic Psychopathology
Nonetheless, this field of psychology is far from without difficulties or challenges (like most fields) as it is very difficult to find a definitive diagnosis for condition. This is even more true for people who don’t meet the minimum criteria for mental conditions or a type of psychological impairment, and I suppose in courts of law subsyndrome conditions don’t carry as much weight.
Also maladaptive characteristics do exist which can provoke differential or provisional diagnosis but diagnosable conditions cannot be provided if the minimum criteria aren’t met, or they don’t meet the additional specifications listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition) nor they a diagnosis be given if the symptoms are inconsistent with the DSM.
Another massive downside in forensic psychopathology is that there is limited empirical and evidence-based research as well as the theoretical frameworks that can advance the field.
Therefore, without progression happening in clinical assessments and psychological testing to determine if a person has a mental condition or not, forensic psychopathologists cannot effectively examine the critical diagnostic systems to establish the best treatment practices that is critically needed in legal cases. As well as insufficient research and applications of theories can comprise the effectiveness of clinical programs, recidivism (reoffending) studies and criminal prevention strategies.
The reason why this is a problem is because the lack of progression and insufficient research can make the advice and consultation of forensic psychopathologists not 100% reliable at no fault of their own. As this field of psychology focuses particularly on criminal offences, sanity, mental conditions, contemporary and other factors that are widely considered in legal cases. And everyone have the right to due process and fairness within the criminal justice system.
But here’s the key.
In order to have all that you need to have effective, reliable and valid testing and assessment practices, and they need to be proficient too. So that’s why this is a problem for the field and why more research does need to be done to try and help fill in some of the gaps in the literature.
Future And Conclusion:
With most of the podcast’s audience being clinical psychology students and professionals, we all know the impact that mental conditions can have on people’s lives and the effects it can have on their friends, family and society as a whole. But forensic psychopathology takes a more nuanced look at how it impacts the legal system and whilst it is fascinating and an important field there are some stark problems.
Which is why it is absolutely critical that there is more awareness and education about this field of psychology so it can become more expansive as well as legitimate in both the legal and forensic psychology communities.
Also whilst there are a lot of overlaps between forensic psychology and psychopathology, we do need as a community and profession to help establish the difference between the two. As both fields have different objectives of clinical expertise and services in a legal context in different ways.
Then finally research. More research and making sure it continues is just critical for the future of the field to improve policy and decision making processes within the criminal justice system.
Overall, I really hope you enjoyed learning about this fascinating subfield of forensic psychology. Before this episode I never knew about this subfield so I definitely learnt a lot and I hope we’re all more aware now of the problems facing forensic psychopathology. And maybe, just maybe you wonderful listener could be the one to change it.
You never know.
I really hope you have enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Forensic Psychology Collection. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day!
Forensic Psychology References:
Department of Justice. (n.d.). Federal Juvenile Delinquency Code. https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-117-federa…
Dettmeyer, R. B., Verhoff, M. A., & Schutz, H. F. (2013). Forensic psychopathology. Forensic Medicine, 451-458. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3642-38818-7_27
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). Juvenile age of jurisdiction and transfer to adult court laws. https://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/juvenile-age-o…
Ray, W. J. (2018). Abnormal psychology. 2nd ed. Sage Publications.
Ward, J. T. (2013). What is forensic psychology? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2013/09/forensic-psychology
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