Forensic psychology, fantasy and mead
Please introduce yourself in two sentences (no pressure!).
I’m a forensic psychologist from the West Midlands. I also moonlight as a writer and occasionally make mead.
Forensic psychology is a popular topic for many movies and TV shows, with the accuracy of these depictions often varying and leading to misconceptions about this area of psychology. How would you define the field of forensic psychology and the role it plays?
Real life forensic psychology is very different from the majority of depictions in fiction. Our work in the real world most often involves assessing the risk posed by people who have committed offences and working to help them to reduce their risk and live safe and healthy lives. It’s a varied profession, but most depictions of forensic psychology in the media focus on profiling, which only a handful of people in the UK work in full time. Most of us work in prisons, secure hospitals or in making assessments and writing reports for the different courts, etc. This means that when we work with people who have committed offences, we are most often working with them after a crime has been committed and they’ve been charged or sentenced, rather than profiling, detecting and generally getting stuck into all of that fun investigative stuff that TV forensic psychologists do!
What do you think of the way shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order portray forensic psychology?
They are great fun to watch, although it means that lots of people expect my job to be much sexier and more exciting than it really is. It often bothers me that depictions of offenders aren’t very nuanced, though. I don’t like to see people depicted as monsters. Real life is much more complicated and rich. Often we prefer to see criminals as monsters because it enables us to “other” them- to see them as very different to us, to our friends, family and neighbours, because to realise that there is often less difference and less distance between “them” and “us” is uncomfortable.
Psychopaths – a controversial subject
Your work involves dealing with psychopaths. How is psychopathy diagnosed, and how does it differ from other personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathy?
Psychopathy, like most disorders, is usually assessed with the help of a structured assessment tool that takes into account the information about someone’s history and current presentation from a variety of sources such as court reports, police records of previous convictions, information from family, etc, and information gathered through interviewing the person.
Psychopathy and other personality disorders are a very controversial topic. Some clinicians, academics and experts by experience (people who have been through the mental health or criminal justice system), believe that making these sorts of diagnoses is problematic. There is a lot of overlap between diagnoses like psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, which can make diagnosis challenging. There are also concerns about the stigma attached to the diagnosis and how this can impact on people. However other clinicians and academics feel that exploring the facets of an individuals personality is helpful in understanding their treatment needs and risk.
How do you deal with working with people who have, in some cases, done terrible things?
When I was a child, when we would see homeless people, my mum would say that each person we saw came into the world full of promise and innocence and that we should never forget that child within each person. I’ve carried that with me with the work that I do. Every person I’ve worked with who has committed a serious crime has had experiences, often tragic, that have shaped their journey through life and their actions. My job is to help them to live a safe, meaningful and pro-social life. I consider their risk carefully and have a responsibility to try to work to reduce their risk of harm, but the best way of doing that is through supporting people to rebuild their lives and contribute to society.
Do you believe psychopaths can be rehabilitated? Are there treatments for psychopathy?
As I’ve mentioned above, the diagnosis of psychopathy is in itself controversial and complex. Generally speaking, people who have strong traits of psychopathy, such as a lack of regard for others, can make changes to their lives, but sometimes they may need more support for a longer period of time to do so. There are some people who will find it harder to change or who may not be motivated to change and some people who will need monitoring and support for a long time to manage their risk.
Are all psychopaths dangerous?
There are lots of people in everyday life who present with some degree of traits of psychopathy. Sometimes those traits, like a lack of regard for the feelings of others, superficial charm, etc, can allow people to become successful in fields where these sorts of facets are beneficial.
In Bright Lies, David is highly deceptive and manipulative; do you think he qualifies as a psychopath?
If David was a real person, he’d be likely to have traits that would be common in people with a higher level of psychopathy.
What is the process of carrying out a clinical assessment?
Generally clinical assessment pulls on a variety of sources – information from medical records, court reports, psychological or psychiatric reports, information from family or people who know the person being assessed well and information from face to face interview/s with the person.
Fantasy – the Cunning Folk Mysteries
Finally, you are also a fantasy writer. Tell us about your books.
I’ve written two books in a historical fantasy series called the Cunning Folk Mysteries. They are set in 17th century Lancashire in the era of the witch trials, but in an alternate timeline where Christianity hasn’t become the dominant religion in England. The idea came from thinking about what the lives of the women who were the subject of the witch trials would have been like if witchcraft wasn’t viewed as bad or dangerous. The elevator pitch for the series would probably be “Cadfael, but with magic.”