Mental Health and the Law: Forensic Psychology vs. Forensic Psychiatry

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The 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dusky v. United States might not be the best-known in history, but it helped pave the way to a new career path for mental health professionals. A lower court had sentenced Milton Dusky, a 33-year-old man with schizophrenia, to 45 years in prison for a violent crime. Because he understood who and where he was during questioning, he was deemed fit for trial and sentencing. However, Dusky’s attorneys appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where the justices reversed the lower court’s decision. They ruled that defendants must demonstrate two things: first, that they understand the charges levied against them, and second, that they can aid their attorneys in a competent legal defense. Dusky ended up serving 20 years in prison, but the change in precedent was set.

The resulting defendant competency laws vary from state to state, but the Dusky precedent is applicable across the nation. Making sure that these laws are followed is one small but vital piece of what those in the fields of forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry do.

Forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry offer valuable opportunities at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. While becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist takes years of education, including an advanced degree, it’s possible to make an impact in the field at all levels. Those who earn a bachelor’s degree can find rewarding, well-paying career opportunities that serve an important function in the judicial system. Keep reading to discover what it takes to enter these fields, including the differences between forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry.

A forensic psychiatrist interviews a defendant.

Forensic Psychology Overview

Forensic psychology examines how mental health conditions and disorders apply to the criminal justice system. Those in the field may work as social science research assistants, probation officers, or community service specialists. Responsibilities in these roles vary, but each directly impacts people who find themselves involved with the criminal justice system. For example, someone with a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology may use their understanding of mental health and criminal justice to advocate for those victimized by crime.

Those who go on to earn a master’s and a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) may become forensic psychologists. This involves determining trial competency for defendants, prosecutors, and witnesses; assessing the risk of inmates under consideration for release; and even aiding in jury selection. Psychologists are required to be licensed by the state but are not medical doctors and are not allowed to prescribe medication.

Forensic Psychology Job Outlook

While it does not keep specific data for forensic psychologists, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 166,600 psychologists working in the United States in 2016 and that the number is expected to grow by 23,000 by 2026, a 14% increase. That’s double the national average for job growth over the same period of time. PayScale reports the average forensic psychologist salary is around $67,000 annually.

Forensic Psychiatry Overview

Forensic psychiatry focuses on the biology of the brain as it applies to the criminal justice system. The work of forensic psychiatry tends toward a heavy focus on science, and forensic psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental disorders in the context of the criminal justice system. Their work involves assessing clients, providing diagnoses, and prescribing medication.

Practicing forensic psychiatrists are required to earn a doctorate in medicine (MD). They are licensed to diagnose and treat mental disorders, including prescribing medication. Those with a bachelor’s degree in the field may find careers as research assistants, in community service management, or in social work.

Forensic Psychiatry Job Outlook

Forensic psychiatry is still a relatively young field and remains small. The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) reports it has about 2,000 members, or about 8% of the 25,000 psychiatrists the BLS says are practicing in the U.S. PayScale reports the average salary for forensic psychiatrists is around $190,000 annually.

Similarities Between Forensic Psychology and Forensic Psychiatry

Forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry both involve the interaction of mental health and the legal system. Both roles assess defendants to determine their competency to stand trial; aid family service workers in custody trials; and work with attorneys, defendants, and patients in the prison system. Both can diagnose and treat mental disorders. Both offer career paths for those with undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Differences Between Forensic Psychology and Forensic Psychiatry

While forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry serve similar roles in the judicial system, they’re different fields with different educational backgrounds, requirements, and approaches to mental health.

Mental Health Focus

Forensic psychology focuses on social and behavioral elements of mental health care and how they affect the criminal justice system. Students pursuing a degree in forensic psychology will encounter coursework that applies to human services and allows for a broad range of applications. Those who go on to earn an advanced degree may find work as a forensic psychologist. In this role, they use various therapies, including talk therapy, to determine the root of patients’ problems and teach them skills for coping.

Forensic psychiatry, on the other hand, focuses on the medical aspects of mental health. Because of this, most students look to earn advanced degrees with a strong foundation in science — particularly biology and neurology. Those pursuing a career in the forensic psychiatry field will learn about the chemical interactions in the brain and how medication can treat imbalances and problems. Graduates may then go on to find entry-level jobs as parole officers, in social work, or as community service managers.

Bachelor’s Degrees and Entry-Level Work

A bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology provides a solid foundation for students. Upon graduation, they will have learned skills in empathy, critical thinking, and research. In addition, they will understand how the criminal justice system works and the role psychology plays in it. With a BA, graduates can serve as correctional specialists; as victim advocates; or, with additional training, in law enforcement.

Forensic psychiatry degrees aren’t generally offered at the bachelor’s level. Instead, many aspiring forensic psychiatrists major in psychiatric rehabilitation, psychology, or forensic psychology. Graduates may then go on to find entry-level jobs as parole officers, in social work, or as community service managers.

Forensic Psychology vs. Forensic Psychiatry: Which Is Right for You?

If you’re considering a career in forensic psychology or forensic psychiatry, make sure you begin with an undergraduate education that helps you understand the legal system as well as the human mind. If a medical career interests you and you’re prepared to seek an advanced degree heavy in science, forensic psychiatry may offer you the challenge you’re looking for.

However, if you’re excited by the prospect of using your bachelor’s education in criminal justice, a degree in forensic psychology can lay the foundation for success. Maryville University’s online forensic psychology bachelor’s degree can help launch you on one of these challenging, fulfilling careers. Find out more about the dynamic, versatile curriculum this degree path offers today.

Sources
American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
American Board of Professional Psychology, Forensic Psychology
Forensic Psychiatric Associates Medical Corporation, The Difference Between Forensic Psychiatrists and Forensic Psychologists
Maryville University, “BA Forensic Psychology Careers”
PayScale, Average Forensic Psychiatrist Salary
PayScale, Average Forensic Psychologist Salary
Psychology Today, “Forensic Psychology: Is It the Career for Me?”
Psychology Today, “What Is Forensic Psychology?”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychiatrists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists
U.S. Supreme Court, Dusky vs. United States