Forensic mental health therapists are licensed mental health professionals who work at the intersection of the mental health and criminal justice and legal systems. This role is particularly salient because individuals entangled in the criminal justice system are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness and neurobehavioral disorders (e.g., fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) than the general population. Elevated rates of mental illness include psychotic (e.g., schizophrenia), mood (e.g., depression and mania), personality (e.g., antisocial and borderline personality disorders), substance use, traumatic (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder), behavioral (e.g., attention-deficit hyperactivity and conduct disorder), and attachment disorders. If untreated, these mental health issues can exacerbate the likelihood of persistent involvement in the criminal justice system. As such, forensic mental health therapists play an important role in enhancing short and long-term outcomes for clients and improving public safety. This article provides an overview of the training, roles, and clients of forensic mental health therapists.
To effectively serve clients, forensic mental health therapists require diverse training and education. First, forensic mental health therapists must be familiar with prominent theories of criminal behavior and possess a working understanding of the criminal justice and legal systems. This includes the legal process and post-adjudication settings including jails, prisons, and community supervision (e.g., probation and parole). Second, forensic mental health therapists need to understand the etiology of psychopathology and have refined skills in the area of assessment and treatment. Along these lines, these professionals must be cognizant of the ethical and legal considerations of working with clients who have been court-mandated to treatment. Third, forensic mental health therapists must keep in mind that their training and education is never done. To maximize effectiveness in this field, forensic mental health therapists must stay abreast of new and innovative research in the areas of psychology, criminology, and the legal system. Further, forensic mental health therapists should regularly seek out advanced training to enhance assessment and treatment skills.
Depending on their level of training and experience, forensic mental health therapists perform a number of roles in private, correctional, inpatient, and outpatient settings. Foremost among them, these professionals are charged with assessing and treating the mental health issues of individuals involved in the criminal justice system. Here, forensic mental health therapists apply the philosophy, values, and techniques of counseling. This likely includes the utilization of risk assessment and treatment techniques such as psychotherapy. Second, to ensure that clients receive the necessary resources, forensic mental health therapists often need to establish contact and coordinate with other providers of key community resources. This could range from social services and housing to education and employment services. In conjunction with assessment and treatment, these community resources can help minimize the likelihood of recidivism in these clients. Third, because of the unique perspective that they offer, forensic mental health therapists could be requested to serve as expert witnesses and testify in a court of law. Across these roles, forensic mental health therapists have the opportunity to help improve short- and long-term outcomes of individuals involved in the criminal justice system.
Forensic mental health therapists can be called upon to provide services for a wide array of clients. Ranging from children to adults, these professionals provide services to clients at different points in the criminal justice system including prior, during, and after trials. Clients may be mandated to attend treatment as a part of a specialty court (e.g., drug court, DUI court, or veterans court) or as a condition of community supervision (i.e., probation or parole). In some cases, clients could even be incompetent to stand trial due to mental health issues or intellectual impairments. The crimes of these clients can range from theft and assault to firesetting and sexual offending. Regardless, forensic mental health therapists must be prepared to serve clients with ranging risk factors and clinical needs.
As demonstrated in this article, forensic mental health therapists play an indispensible part in ensuring criminal justice-involved individuals receive adequate mental health services. This role requires a diverse skill set that often necessitates advanced training and years of experience. In light of the prevalence of mental health issues in criminal justice settings, there is a growing need for more forensic mental health therapists. These professionals have the capacity to not only decrease the likelihood of their clients’ continued involvement in the criminal justice system, but to help improve public safety.
Jerrod Brown, MA, MS, MS, MS, is the Treatment Director for Pathways Counseling Center, Inc. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS) and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST), and the Journal of Special Populations (JSP). Jerrod has completed four separate master’s degree programs and holds graduate certificates in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Other Health Disabilities (OHD), and Traumatic-Brain Injuries (TBI).