The intersection of mental illness and the law is one that is filled with multiple interpretations, ethical dilemmas and varying precedents. Forensic psychiatrists complete medical school as part of their schooling. The combined study of medicine and law focuses on patient rights along with legal issues, which may range from criminal cases to child custody hearings.
What Forensic Psychiatrists Do
As a forensic psychiatrist, you will focus on a patient's criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial, child custody and visitation rights, correctional psychiatry and juvenile justice. This subbranch of psychiatry also helps the mentally ill navigate through the mental health, justice and correctional systems in a way that adheres to the law and respects the rights of the patient. To earn a license to practice as a forensic psychiatrist from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, you must complete an accredited, one-year residency in psychiatry focused on forensics and pass an exam administered by the board.
After medical school, you must take two required courses during the yearlong residency: an overview of forensic psychiatry and a study of psychiatry and the law. The course in forensic psychiatry offered at Duke Law School, for example, focuses on clinical psychiatry and psychopathology. You will study the commitment process, treatment rights and competency issues. A second course on psychiatry and the law offered at the University of North Carolina School of Law also focuses on psychopathology with study of how mental illness works with the legal system. You will learn skills, including interviewing techniques, standardized assessment and psychological testing, and legal use of mental health experts.
During the internship year, you will take seminar courses that focus on the relationship between law and psychiatry. A legal seminar focuses on both federal and state court systems and prepares you for work with an attorney. You will also study landmark cases, an overview of the legal system, and cases that have been determined by the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law to be important to the practice of forensic psychiatry. Additionally, you may take a seminar on psychiatry and the law focusing on evaluation and treatment of people who are already in the criminal justice system.
Additional study in forensic psychiatry will allow you to specialize in your area of interest. Elective study at the University of Rochester Medical Center, for example, includes bioethics, child forensic psychiatry, family court work and forensic psychiatry in free health clinics. You may also take additional elective courses in correctional psychiatry, mental disability law and assessment of sex offenders.