Toward a Good Fit between Forensic Psychiatrists and Psychologists

By Dattilio, Frank M. | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Toward a Good Fit between Forensic Psychiatrists and Psychologists


Dattilio, Frank M., Journal of Psychiatry & Law


The longstanding relationship between forensic psychiatrists and psychologists has been fraught with tension and controversy over the years, particularly pertaining to the issue of their overlapping roles and what some consider a competitiveness in the field. This article reviews some of that controversy and also addresses the issue of how psychiatrists and psychologists actually do different things and can work harmoniously in a collaborative fashion. The text also addresses how this collaborative relationship can be best promoted-not only through forensic training programs, but also in the eyes of attorneys and jurists.

KEY WORDS: Forensic psychiatry, forensic psychology, role differences in forensic experts.

The longstanding relationship between forensic psychiatrists and psychologists has no doubt been fraught with tension and controversy due to the overlapping roles in the field. The controversy, however, has evolved over the decades to encompass a more refined and civil relationship in which the two professions now work more in tandem on a vast array of forensic topics. This relationship has not always been so fruitful, as past literature suggests. In fact, very little has been written to date on the unique relationship between forensic psychiatrists and psychologists and their coexisting status as experts in the forensic psychological field. Of that which has been published, the literature portrays a dichotomy that highlights the specific similarities and differences. An early article authored by Perlin (1977) addressed the legal status of psychologists in the courtroom and opined that, despite the fact that psychologists routinely testified as expert witnesses on an entire range of issues in criminal and civil matters, a pervasive perception still remained in the minds of judges and jurors that psychologists were "second-rate" experts compared to forensic psychiatrists. When Perlin examined the roots of this assumption, he made the startling discovery that psychologists themselves had served to perpetuate this myth more than anyone else. Although, many psychologists would beg to differ, claiming that psychiatrists have been paramount in perpetrating the chasm that exists due to their perception that psychologists pose as unwanted competition and are much less academically and clinically prepared to perform such evaluations as are psychiatrists.

Around the same time that Perlin's article appeared, a chapter by Sadoff (1980) offered a diplomatic view of the differing roles between the two fields. Sadoff emphasized the notion that, "Part of the armamentarium of the forensic psychiatrist is the availability of a good forensic psychologist who is able to apply the skill of clinical psychology to legal issues." Sadoff further went on to state that, "A psychologist has an equally important role to play with a lawyer both in evaluation, examination, and consultation, as well as functioning as a expert witness in court" (p. 107). This would intimate that the forensic psychiatrist and the forensic psychologist serve as a most effective team in consulting with attorneys, especially in criminal cases, but also in a number of civil cases and serving as expert witnesses. Overall, it was Sadoff's opinion in summary that forensic psychiatrists and psychologists may work most effectively as a team when consulting with attorneys on a particular case. It was his feeling that the psychologist brings to the case an expertise beyond that of the psychiatrist and together they may complement each other's clinical work most effectively in helping the attorney with his representation of clients.

An interesting study was subsequently conducted by Crossley and Guzman (1986) in which they polled forensic psychologists and psychiatrists about their relationship, using an informal questionnaire. While a very small number of forensic psychologists and psychiatrists responded (n = 50), they indicated that, for the most part, they maintained a general cordial inter-professional relationship. …

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