What interpersonal qualities should a forensic psychologist have that help build therapeutic relationships?
Forensic psychology is a branch of criminological psychology; it refers to the knowledge of the understanding, prediction and nature of crime or criminal behaviour (Bull, Davies & Westcott, 2003). What defines this psychological practice from others, is that the material produced is usually used within a court of law and during group or individual therapy sessions, with courts commissioning psychologists to create reports indicating the fitness of a defendant on trial, with reference to pre-existing areas of research, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Blackburn, 1996). With recent growth in popularity, due to exposure in certain mainstream television shows and films, such as ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Cracker’, there has been a recent increase in the amount of individuals looking towards a career within forensic psychology (Buskist, Carlson & Martin, 2000). The focus of this essay will be to explore the qualities needed from forensic psychologists and how these may have an impact on the relationships created with individuals they help. To understand this question in its basic terms, we will first try to understand a brief history of forensics as a psychological practice, what individuals are likely to expect within this practice, what is skills and requirements are asked of an individual in this trade, what may occur in certain situations wherein these interpersonal qualities are not met and finally the ethical and legal considerations we must make.
The history of forensics within a psychological practice may assist in understanding how particular traits have become necessary when treating individuals. One of the first recorded cases of a psychologist giving a professional opinion within a court trial would be that of Albert Schrenk-Notzing in Germany, 1886. Later Hugo Munstering, who gave psychological insight into two murder trials, published some of the earliest forensic psychological resources in 1908 (Haward, 1979; Colman, 1995). In recent years, some state institutions have tried to prohibit females from working within all male prisons in America, as they argue that it is too dangerous for females (Arrigo & Shipley, 2005), meaning that although there have been major developments for equality of sexes, there is still some prejudice of females being the weaker gender, both physically and psychologically, within this line of work. This shows us that forensic psychology is a fairly recent phenomenon, with establishments, such as the British Psychological Association (BPS) recently creating a division devoted to criminal psychology (Buskist, Carlson & Martin, 2000). This may mean, that although we have some understanding of the professionalism needed within legal and psychological situations, we may not be fully aware of specific requirements needed of individuals due to the fact that forensic psychology is still in its adolescent stages of development.
Some questions posed to forensic psychologists help us gain an insight into what qualities are needed to give an accurate report and to fully express themselves within legal situations. These include, and are not limited to: if they are fit to stand trial, if the testimony is genuine, if the individual has any learning difficulties and if they are malingering (Colman, 1995). This would mean that not only are forensic psychologists required to have a respectful understanding of all parties involved, it is also key that they show qualities of insight, to understand the strengths and limitations of the individual and the tests conducted. Other qualities include an empathetic personality to any personality or learning disorders, tolerance of individuals with uncooperative personalities and an unprejudiced outwardly view of an individual, regardless of their past.
To fully understand what is required from a forensic psychologist, it is important to understand this occupation in comparison with others which it is usually mistaken for, such as forensic psychiatry and clinical psychology, as many of the boundaries between these careers are blurred. Clinical psychologists primarily assess the psychological distress of an individual, and through already established methods, try to promote psychological well-being. Forensic psychiatrists have little or no training in professionally administering psychological tests which assess personality and intelligence; they will usually provide evidence based on a clinical interview, which are sometimes regarded more as an opinion than objective data (Buskist, Carlson & Martin, 2000). This would mean that individuals within forensic psychology will not only have a broad understanding of particular tests used, but also their limitations and benefits and an open-minded personality on how this may help of the rehabilitation and support of convicted criminals.
Many of the duties involved in being a forensic psychologist require a different set of skills in many situations. Clinical assessments involve interviewing individuals and performing particular psychological test to assess an individual. As previously noted, this requires a broad range of knowledge and understanding of the tests, along with their strengths and weaknesses. The formulation of cases involves the hypothesising of causes, precipitants, and key influences on an individual’s interpersonal and behavioural problems (Eells, 2007); this means that not only is certain degree of open-mindedness needed to understand the individual needs and requirements in certain situations, a forensic psychologist is also required to be supportive and empathetic in nature, whist maintaining a professional attitude of the boundaries put in place by this career. Another duty involves the risk assessment of criminals; this requires a working knowledge of how to predict and manage individuals who seem to pose a risk of committing a criminal act (Appelbaum, Grisso, Monahan, Mulvey, Robbins, & Steadman, 2000). This means that a personal understanding of an individual is required during therapeutic sessions, therefore a forensic psychologist should remain professional, whilst being reflective and insightful to build a rapport with those they are trying to help.
Undergraduates wishing to undergo this career are notified of the amount of work they will need to do to be able to fulfil this aspiration. A first in a degree supported by the BPS is one of the primary requirement, with few post-graduate training courses taking on those with a 2:1. Secondly, a masters accredited by the BPS in forensic psychology is also necessary, followed by two years of supervised practice in a forensic psychology Stage 2 program, also accredited by the BPS. Alternatively, some universities offer a doctorate programme in forensic psychology, which combine the masters and stage 2 course. Finally, a registration with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) is also required. Just the training for this career path shows us that this is not a job to be considered lightly; due to the amount of time and funding it takes to undergo this path, those applying will need excellent time management skills, along with a desire to fully commit themselves to this lifestyle; both of these qualities are also used later when they are in a career, meaning that throughout training, you are prepared for some of the challenges we will discuss later.
Many individuals which a forensic psychologist encounter, tests both the strengths and limitations of the individual; whilst some therapeutic sessions may conducted in a straight forward manner, others will challenge the way we conduct ourselves, meaning that to fully understand the individual, we must first understand our own limits. There is a wide array of personalities and people which a forensic psychiatrist may treat, for example, adolescent offenders, adult female and male offenders, offenders who are disabled, have behavioural/psychological disorders or learning difficulties and those convicted of criminal acts which may afflict an emotional response from a psychologist (such as arson, stalking and sex offending). Interestingly, there has been a dramatic increase of women sentenced to immediate imprisonment within the UK, as the average female inmate population grew over 173% between 1992 and 2002, whilst male inmate population increased by only 50% (Home Office, 2005). This shows us that as society is changing, we too need to adapt our abilities and skills to treat a new wave of criminal behaviour, as some may be unable to cope or unsure of how to deal with the demands placed on us by dramatic increases such as this.
In some instances in which individuals are not prepared for the psychological demands of this career, or do not have the suited interpersonal qualities to facilitate a healthy therapeutic relationship, situations may result negatively for one or both of the parties involved. In June 2009, Margret Burton was murdered by her late patient and partner Jason Hawkins after previously being advised that he should not have been released. This may have been due to a number of factors, as Burton had moved to another country, away from support groups, such as family and friends. Another reason may have been that there was an inadequate system put in place by the institution she was working at to deal with these particular stresses that would have otherwise been noticed. This means that not only is it of upmost importance to understand your individual weaknesses within this industry, it is just as important to understand how to cope and ask for assistance. Another example of an incident regarding the safety of a forensic psychologist would be that of the murder of Kathryn Faughey, an individual who was murdered by David Tarloff in 2008. Initially, one of her co-workers, Kent Schinbach, was supposed to be targeted, due his diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1991, which in turn led to Tarloff becoming institutionalised. Figures indicate that violence against employees within the mental health sector is not an uncommon occurrence, with over 40% of colleagues reporting a non-fatal violent crime being committed against them between the years 1993 and 1999, and is thought to increase within recent years (Dubin & Ning, 2008). This has led to forensic psychologists to understand and undertake safety measures as a part of daily clinical practice, as well as understanding the steps needed to prevent and confront violence within the possible therapy sessions; it also means that in order to deal with these common occurrences, individuals who work within this sector should have a tolerant personality and professional personality, whilst remaining empathetic and supportive towards their clients.
There are many ethical considerations put in place by courts to ensure that confidentiality, consent and other legal obligations to maintain the safety of the individual are upheld within all situations; this requires a particular amount of trust, respect and professionalism from the both the psychologist and law at all times. The legal understanding of the standards of ethics within particular situations is key in undergoing this career, as a majority of the work involves adherence to a specific ethics code put in place by the courts, therefore any psychologist should meet the standard of general practice within both a psychological and legal setting (American Psychological Association, 1991). It may be a surprise to some that informed consent is not legal requirement, as in situations wherein it is ordered by the court it may be overlooked; this means that although an individual may initially reject a psychiatric interview or certain psychometric tests, if the court requests it, for example, for the inclusion in a report for use during trail, the right to withdraw will then be withheld (Kalmbach & Lyons, 2006). In some cases, the right to withdraw is also held by the examiner, should they feel discomfort, moral obligation to stop or for any reason they feel the individual should not undergo the testing, however a reason is almost always required within this situation. In other scenarios, in which a court feels as if objectivity is being compromised (such as an examiner producing prejudice results or giving a misleading interpretation of an event) will cause the court to reject the statements given and demand that they withdraw from a trial (Bonnie, 1990; Brodsky, 1990). Psychologists who trying to build relationships with those that they are treating would need a high level of understanding of the ethical and legal requirements within the workplace, whilst maintaining an unbiased attitude towards all those involve, as certain personal emotions may result in a loss of objectivity.
To conclude, the work and development in the field of forensic psychology has shown great importance, due to the contributions it has made within legal and social settings. The collective work of forensic psychologists has inspired the entertainment industry to create fictitious scenarios, some of which based on real events, which in turn has inspired a new generation of individuals to undergo a career in forensic psychology. With the rise of criminal and violent behaviour within today’s society, there is a welcomed need for these inspired individuals to mould what has already been created and adjust it to the individual and society’s ever changing and complex nature. As noted, a career within this community is not be undertaken without some understanding into the possible risks and hazards involved, such as the likelihood of psychological and physical harm to the individual. This means that those considering a career must first understand their own weaknesses, as should they present themselves during this period of work, it could be detrimental to themselves and those they are treating. The ability to ensure an individual feels comfortable during a personal situation, such as therapy, is arguably one of the most important skills to possess; not only are forensic psychologists required to maintain this trusting and empathetic persona during these sessions, it is of upmost importance that they also understand that a professional, resilient and respectful nature is key, as a lack of these may have detrimental effects on the patient and psychologist alike. Many institutions within the UK have support systems put in place, such as staff supervision, for those at risk or in training which allow individuals to reflect on themselves, and to understand how they may have a major impact on an individual’s wellbeing.
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