Clinical and Forensic Psychology

Broadly conceived, clinical psychology is concerned with the assessment and treatment of persons with mental disorders. Clinical psychologists assess and treat persons with a variety of mental disorders, ranging from less severe problems (e.g., marital difficulties, adjustment problems) to more severe disorders (e.g., psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or mood disorders such as major depression or bipolar disorder). Clinical-forensic psychologists are clinical psychologists who specialize in the assessment and/or treatment of persons who, in some way, are involved in the legal process or legal system.

Clinical-forensic psychologists are employed in a variety of settings including state forensic hospitals, court clinics, mental health centers, jails, prisons, and juvenile treatment centers. Clinical-forensic psychologists can also work independently in private practice, although it is rare that a psychologist in private practice solely does forensic work. Finally, some clinical-forensic psychologists are employed primarily as researchers in university or mental health settings, conducting research in this interesting area.

Activities of Clinical-Forensic Psychologists

Clinical-forensic psychologists are perhaps best known for their assessment of persons involved with the legal system. Because of their knowledge of human behavior, abnormal psychology, and psychological assessment, psychologists are sometimes asked by the courts to evaluate a person and provide the court with an “expert opinion,” either in the form of a report or testimony. For example, clinical-forensic psychologists frequently evaluate adult criminal defendants or children involved in the juvenile justice system, offering the court information that might be relevant to determining (1) whether the defendant has a mental disorder that prevents him or her from going to trial, (2) what the defendant's mental state may have been like at the time of the criminal offense, or (3) what treatment might be indicated for a particular defendant who has been convicted of a crime or juvenile offense. Increasingly, clinical-forensic psychologists are being called upon to evaluate defendants who have gone to trial and who have been found guilty and for whom one of the sentencing options is the death penalty. In this case, psychologists are asked to evaluate the mitigating circumstances of the case and to testify about these as they relate to the particular defendant.

Clinical-forensic psychologists also evaluate persons in civil (i.e., non-criminal) cases. These psychologists may evaluate persons who are undergoing guardianship proceedings, to assist the court in determining whether the person has a mental disorder that affects his or her ability to make important life decisions (e.g., managing money, making health care decisions, making legal decisions). Clinical-forensic psychologists also evaluate persons who are plaintiffs in lawsuits, who allege that they were emotionally harmed as a result of someone's wrongdoing or negligence. Clinical-forensic psychologists may evaluate children and their parents in cases of divorce, when parents cannot agree about the custody of their children and what is best for them. Clinical-forensic psychologists are sometimes called on to evaluate children to determine whether they have been abused or neglected and the effects of such abuse or neglect, and offer the court recommendations regarding the placement of such children.

In addition to forensic assessment, clinical-forensic psychologists are also involved in treating persons who are involved with the legal system in some capacity. Jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities employ clinical psychologists to assess and treat adults and juveniles who are either awaiting trial, or who have been adjudicated and are serving a sentence of some type. Treatment in these settings is focused both on mental disorders and providing these persons

with skills and behaviors that will decrease the likelihood that they will re-offend in the future. Clinical-forensic psychologists employed in mental health centers or in private practice may also treat persons involved in the legal system, providing either general or specialized treatment (e.g., treatment of sex offenders, treatment of violent or abusive persons, treatment of abuse victims).

Researchers in this area are involved in a variety of activities. Some devote their energy to developing and examining the utility of specialized tests that are designed to assist in assessment of persons in legal settings (e.g., instruments designed to assess criminal defendants' capacity to participate in the criminal justice process). Others examine the effectiveness of various treatments with different kinds of populations (e.g., efficacy of specialized treatment for sex offenders or batterers). Still others study the impact of abuse or victimization, or the factors that put people at risk for violent behavior, criminal behavior, or victimization.

Educational and Training Requirements

As is the case with clinical psychology more generally, a doctoral degree (i.e., PhD/PsyD) in clinical psychology and licensure as a psychologist is typically considered necessary for independent practice of clinical-forensic psychology. Persons with masters (MA or MS) degrees in clinical psychology are typically able to obtain employment in institutions, where they work under the supervision of a PhD or PsyD psychologist. Students wishing to practice independently should consider a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology necessary, which typically involves 4 years of graduate study, followed by a 1 year internship.

Few PhD or PsyD programs offer specialty training in clinical-forensic psychology. Indeed, most clinical-forensic psychologists are graduates of general clinical psychology programs who developed their specialty later in their training, either on internship, by way of completing a forensic fellowship, or by independent and continuing education study. Students interested in becoming clinical-forensic psychologists should strongly consider a clinical PhD or PsyD program which offers a forensic specialization or enter a clinical doctoral program which houses a faculty member whose research and clinical interests are in the clinical-forensic area. Additional and more specialized training will occur at the internship and fellowship levels. As is the case with all graduate programs, admissions are competitive, and students are likely to maximize their chances of admission by obtaining high scores, good grades, research experience, and a sound foundation in psychology and the scientific method. Students who are leaning towards clinical practice might also consider PsyD programs, which focus less on research than PhD programs.

A Note About Criminal Profiling

Due to depictions in popular media (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, Profiler, CSI), many students express an interest in and ask questions about criminal profiling, which may be described as a criminal investigative technique based, in part, on psychological expertise and knowledge. In reality, few law enforcement agencies employ such techniques and there is little call for such professionals. Those interested in such work would probably do better to consider a career in law enforcement than clinical-forensic psychology.

The Behavioral Sciences Unit of the FBI, does employ a few FBI agents who engage in this activity. The FBI makes a distinction between mental health and law enforcement: FBI agents are law enforcement professionals, not mental health professionals. In order to work as a profiler, or with the FBI in any other role, it is necessary to become an FBI agent. Experience in criminal investigation is needed before an agent can even be considered for a profiling position, but only a small number of agents ever become profilers. Since this would be a difficult goal to achieve, the FBI encourages prospective applicants who are interested in being special agents to do so because they are interested in the range of opportunities available with the FBI, not because they want to be a profiler. Further information is available from their office in Washington, D.C. or through their website: