What is Forensic Psychopathology?

What you need to know about this specialized discipline.

Posted Jul 21, 2020

Gerhard G. from Pixabay
Source: Gerhard G. from Pixabay

What is forensic psychopathology and how does it differ from forensic psychology?

Psychopathology is a general term used in clinical psychology and neuroscience to discuss mental disorders or psychological impairment “in scientific, professional research and practice” (Ray, 2018, p. 2). It is the scientific study of mental disorders, and through investigation and specialized treatment, experts determine causes and progressive conditions. The sub-field is a proponent of other psychological disciplines which researches how mental illnesses influence human thought and behavior.

Forensic psychopathology is the combination of psychopathology and the legal system. The discipline focuses on psychopathological theories and practices to apply within the criminal justice system. This is not to be confused with forensic psychology which is another specialized branch that applies clinical specialties to the legal arena and focuses on clinical psychology practices in a forensic setting (Ward, 2013, para. 2).

In forensic psychology, experts conduct psychological assessments with individuals who are involved in the legal system (i.e. victims, accused, criminals, etc.). Forensic psychologists are highly skilled in clinical methods and are also experienced with the law. Having such capabilities are crucial because forensic psychologists have an ethical and legal responsibility for the following:

  • child abuse and custody cases
  • insanity and competency hearings
  • school threat evaluations
  • victims of crimes
  • psychological evaluations
  • adult and juvenile offender programs
  • counseling services
  • diagnosis and treatment plans

Like other areas of clinical psychology, forensic psychologists must earn a PhD or PsyD, be licensed (and board certified) to conduct clinical assessments, interviews, and report writing. Additionally, forensic psychologists must have experience with the law, as their position requires them to advise, consult, and provide professional expertise within the courts.

Though forensic psychopathology is indicative of clinical and psychological applications within the legal system, the field has different objectives than forensic psychology. The focus is predicated on accurate diagnosis modalities for mental illnesses to assess, diagnose, identify best treatment plans and interpret such information to the courts. For example, experts can investigate abnormal psychological indicators that influences an individual’s reasoning and judgement for committing a crime. Such information can determine if the accused can be held responsible, convicted of a criminal offense or whether a mental disorder should be a significant factor when making a decision in court. Therefore, it is imperative that psychopathologists study mental disorders to determine how the illness will affect human thought and behavior, especially when it comes to committing crimes.

Analysis and Culpability in Forensic Psychopathology

In understanding psychopathology, an individual’s ability to make decisions based on insight, judgement, reasoning and morality are significant; however, the capacity to do so can be impaired due to psychological challenges. Neurological disorders, mental illnesses, physiological conditions and medicinal treatment (including illicit substances and alcohol use) can harm one’s propensity to have sound judgment.

Evaluating an individual’s criminal responsibility is a considerable factor for the legal system process, and forensic psychopathologists and forensic psychiatrists are liable for reviewing such cases that can affect court considerations. Dettmeyer et al. (2013) expressed that criminal responsibility should be regarded cautiously and independently to ensure statutory provisions that regulate age requirements are adhered to. Not only is criminal responsibility assessed through competence and sanity, the age of the individual is a significant factor and must also be considered by law. Age, competency, and psychopathology are crucial factors in court decisions.

Under the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Code, courts must thoroughly review Chapter 403 of Title 18 (18 U.S.C.A. §§  5031-42) United State Code before prosecuting individuals under 18 for any federal crimes. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 90 percent of the states’ maximum age for juvenile court prosecution is 17 years old and the remaining states are 16 years old of age (i.e. Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin). However, Missouri and Michigan increased the age to 17 which will go into effect in 2021. These law restrictions must be included when assessing an individual’s competency and sanity.

How to Circumvent Challenges in the Field   

Finding a definitive diagnosis for psychopathological conditions can be difficult, especially when individuals do not meet minimum criteria for mental disorders or a type of psychological impairment. Maladaptive characteristics exist which can provoke differential or provisional diagnosis; however, diagnosable pathologies cannot be provided if minimum criteria are not met, symptoms are inconsistent or do not meet additional specifications listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth edition).

There is limited empirical and evidence-based research in addition to theoretical frameworks that can advance the field. Without the progression of psychological testing and clinical assessments to determine abnormal psychopathological conditions, forensic psychopathologists cannot effectively examine critical diagnostic systems to establish the best treatment practices which is critical in legal cases. Also, insufficient research and theoretical applications can compromise the effectiveness of clinical programs, criminal prevention strategies, and recidivism studies.

Forensic psychopathology focuses particularly on criminal offenses;  age, competency, sanity, mental disorders (or more than mental illness), and other factors are expansively considered in legal cases. Individuals have the right to due process and fairness within the criminal justice system by having effective, valid, reliable and proficient testing and assessment practices; it is the ethical responsibility of mental health professionals and physicians to ensure that they are only providing proper care but also ensure individuals who are accused of or committed crimes are culpable.  

Forensic psychopathology relies on the understanding and the scientific study of mental disorders and its effects on individuals’ behavioral and cognitive abilities. It is imperative to expand education and awareness through extensive investigation so the field can become more expansive and legitimized within the forensic, psychology and legal communities. Though there are many overlapping responsibilities between forensic psychopathology and forensic psychology, establishing distinctiveness between the two is critical to understanding the separate objectives of providing clinical specialties and appropriate services in a legal context. The continuance of research and development in forensic psychopathology is crucial to improving policy and decision making processes within the criminal justice system.


Department of Justice. (n.d.). Federal Juvenile Delinquency Code. https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-117-federal-juvenile-delinquency-code

Dettmeyer, R. B., Verhoff, M. A., & Schutz, H. F. (2013). Forensic psychopathology. Forensic Medicine, 451-458. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3642-38818-7_27

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). Juvenile age of jurisdiction and transfer to adult court laws. https://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/juvenile-age-of-jurisdiction-and-transfer-to-adult-court-laws.aspx

Ray, W. J. (2018). Abnormal psychology. 2nd ed. Sage Publications.

Ward, J. T. (2013). What is forensic psychology? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2013/09/forensic-psychology