Forensic psychology often finds itself enshrouded in a cloud of myths and misconceptions. People's ideas about what a forensic psychologist does are frequently shaped by TV shows, movies, and a general misunderstanding of the field. In this blog, we’ll delve into the real world of forensic psychology, debunking some common myths and shedding light on what forensic psychologists actually do.
Myth 1: Forensic Psychologists Work with Dead People
This is a myth I encounter often. When I mention my profession, people immediately jump to the conclusion that I work with the deceased. It’s a common misconception, likely fueled by the 'forensic' part of the title, which people often associate with forensic pathology. But forensic psychology is all about the living mind. Our work involves understanding the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of very much alive individuals, whether they're involved in the criminal justice system, victims of crime, or other related parties.
Myth 2: Forensic Psychologists Can Only Work in Prisons
The field of forensic psychology extends far beyond the walls of prisons. While prisons are one area of work, forensic psychologists play vital roles in various aspects of the criminal justice system. Think about the Criminal justice system for a moment – this does include prison, true. But it also includes: -
Services that focus on the prevention of crime. This can include social care services, charities such as homelessness charities or addiction charities, mental health services that support well-being and healing.
Arrest process. This can include criminal profiling (which all the movies about forensic psychologists tend to focus on), working directly with the police or consulting the police on the arrest process. Some of the work that I was involved in within my research was improving the interviewing process (e.g., helping police ensure that eyewitness memory is being managed effectively).
Within the sentencing and court processes. A Forensic Psychologist can be an expert witness who’s role is to assess and develop reports for court to help jury make their decisions. This can be assessments on anything, not just risk. Anything that the court needs, as long as it is a psychological assessment that the psychologist is trained in, they can complete this work (e.g., personality disorder assessment, assessment for psychopathy, learning disability and capacity, autism or neurodiversity and so on).
When someone gets convicted and sentenced, there are so many places they can go. Not just prison.
If they are mentally unwell, then someone will be sectioned and placed in a hospital – Forensic psychologists can work here.
Prisons come in all different levels of security (from open conditions to high security). All of these are very different and need different input from a Psychologist. Even then, theres SO MANY different things you can do in a Prison (e.g., therapy and treatment, assessmnet, service development, research, consultation etc…).
Probation. They may serve their sentence in the community, or at least some of their sentence. So, a Forensic Psychologist can work into probation, develop community services, offer therapy and continue conducting assessments.
Private practice. Court reports tend to be private, but there are other things that you can do in private practice too. You can offer therapy (like we do here at Glass Oak Psychology), you can offer consultation to other services, write your own work and so on.
Myth 3: A Career as a Forensic Psychologist Requires a Law Degree
There's a common belief that to become a forensic psychologist, one must have a background in law. However, the path to this career starts with a BSc in Psychology, followed by an MSc in Forensic Psychology, and culminates in doctoral-level training. While the journey involves learning about legal aspects relevant to psychology, a law degree is not a prerequisite. The focus is on melding psychological principles with legal knowledge, ensuring that practitioners are well-equipped to operate at the intersection of these two fields.
Myth 4: Forensic Psychologists Only Work with Criminals
Looking back at Myth 2, it’s clear that the work of a forensic psychologist is not limited to interactions with criminals. Our work is diverse and involves collaborating with various professionals within the criminal justice system. Personally, I have worked extensively with victims of crime and families of individuals who are navigating the criminal justice system.
The role of a forensic psychologist is to understand all aspects of crime and its impact, which means working with a wide range of people affected by these issues.
Myth 5: The Work is Like You See on TV
The depiction of forensic psychology in media is often far from reality. On TV, the job is portrayed as constantly tense and thrilling, which is great for entertainment but not an accurate representation of the day-to-day work. While there are indeed moments of intensity and the job can be demanding, much of our work involves routine assessments, consultations, and therapy sessions. The reality is more methodical and less dramatized than what's typically shown on screen.
Forensic psychology is a fascinating field that intersects with the legal system, mental health, and societal issues. By understanding what forensic psychologists actually do, we can appreciate the vital role they play in our justice system and in supporting individuals affected by crime. Whether it’s working with those who have committed crimes, their victims, or the systems that manage these processes, the work is varied, challenging, and crucially important. It’s a profession that goes beyond the myths and offers a unique insight into the human psyche within the context of law and order.