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Working in forensic psychology

By David Whittingham

My interest in criminal behaviour originated from reading Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" books, the American "Hardy Boys" series by Franklin Dixon, and Robert Arthur's Hitchcock-inspired "The Three Investigators". This interest led me to my first position as a psychologist working for the Department of Corrective Services.

At university I enrolled in psychology but majored in English too, due to the appeal that writing and fiction have for me and my aim of authoring a fantasy work one day. There were no ‘forensic' subjects per se in psychology at James Cook University then, so criminal behaviour remained a general interest rather than an academic pursuit. I actually found the English subjects more stimulating, and social activities competed heavily with psychology lectures!

I am primarily employed by a community forensic mental health service, working with mentally ill offenders and with the staff that provide care to this population. Typically I see clients for clinical and forensic purposes, attend clinical and administrative meetings and spend a small amount of time on research and evaluation activities each day. This research is firstly for my Master's work on personal responsibility and offence-related emotions (ie. remorse, guilt and shame), and secondly on risk intervention in practice. I also provide some supervision to postgraduate forensic students at a university and partake in a little private practice.

My work with clients generally involves risk assessment and psychological treatment for a range of forensic problem behaviours and clinical concerns. This can include dealing with clients with presenting problems such as sexual and violent offending, firesetting, and uncontrollable anger, usually occurring in conjunction with psychotic and substance-use disorders. For example, with non-psychotic clients who set fires I aim to alter the psychological significance of fire-setting and increase their pro-social coping skills and their understanding and responsibility for the function of fire-setting. This involves evaluating motive, and conducting a thorough functional analysis and assessment of their cognitive and affective experiences before, during and after the actual fire setting, incorporating the background of their own personal history. Treatment uses cognitive-behavioural strategies emphasising impulse control, self-monitoring, emotional regulation and imaginal exposure, all embedded in a relapse prevention framework, which helps clients to avoid high-risk situations.

As I work at a tertiary consultation service we go to the client, which in practical terms means we visit several hospitals and community clinics as well as clients' homes to deliver our outreach services. The work is team-based, with representation from several disciplines, so joint assessment and treatment is common practice and is one of the most stimulating aspects of the job.

I am thankful to two professors from my time at university, one who inspired me with his humanist and evidence-based approach to the treatment of sexual offenders, and the other who shared with me his erudite advice on all matters legal and ethical. As a forensic psychologist I have worked within institutional, community and university settings as a clinician, supervisor, trainer and educator. I have been best able to apply my knowledge and skills in this field by providing and encouraging the delivery of evidence-based psychological services to my client group, in an ethically sensitive and empowering way.

I have also dealt with police working in the community and in watchhouses, providing them with training and advice to help them recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness, to communicate with mentally ill persons and to enhance awareness of suicide risks. I am currently working part-time on a project with police for Queensland Health's mental health unit, developing a protocol to assist with preventing and managing mental health crisis situations.

This field faces the challenging task of disseminating and integrating its research base into professional practice, and maintaining the knowledge and skill base of its practitioners, which is necessary for them to competently provide forensic psychological services.

It is essential for you as one of today's students of psychology to think critically about your interests and future goals and to tailor your postgraduate training or work to ‘test' some of these ideas. More important in forensic psychology, however, is to retain a belief in the positive contribution our discipline can have on the everyday lives of our clients, and a sense of humour.