Being a forensic psychiatrist

Published on November 2nd, 2011
Being a forensic psychiatrist

You’ve seen it in loads of movies: someone does something bad, they get taken to court and they plead ‘temporary insanity’, then an expert gets called up as a witness to confirm the suspect’s sanity. Well, that expert is usually a forensic psychiatrist, and if you’re fascinated by legal issues and the way the brain works, this might be the perfect career for you…

We chat to Professor Sean Kaliski, Head of Forensic Psychiatry in the Western Cape, to get the inside scoop on this fascinating career…

What type of person do you need to be to succeed as a Forensic Psychiatrist?
“You have to have the intellectual ability to qualify as a medical doctor and specialise in psychiatry. A forensic psychiatrist must possess a combination of excellent clinical skills, an interest in the law, a dispassionate temperament and resilience in the face of possibly horrific information. Then you should be able to communicate complex technical information in straightforward understandable language. You also need to be interested in rehabilitating mentally disordered offenders. I could go on and on…”

What do you enjoy most about your job?
“The list is very long. I am exposed to fascinating stories and puzzles, which I help to solve. There is satisfaction not only in reaching acceptable solutions to difficult problems (often for the courts), but the rehabilitation aspect of this job involves getting know mentally disordered individuals over many years, and helping them through their mental illness and reintegrating them into their communities. It is interesting work that feels valuable.”

Any advice for young people who are interested in this career?
“I don’t have specific advice. You can only know ultimately whether the field is for you by progressing through all the preliminary stages (medical school, registrarship etc) first. I was horrified when our then head of department told me that the only post he could offer me after passing my psychiatry college exams was forensic psychiatry. Kyk hoe lyk ek nou…”