Forensic Psychology, Mental Illness, and Military Crimes



Source: Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Forensic psychology has been associated with handling legal issues and solving civil crimes. However, little focus is placed on how it is an integral part of the military justice system.

Since September 11, mental illness has been a growing concern and an increase in crime within the U.S. military. Research shows that post-traumatic

stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems are more prevalent in the military than in the general population (Frank et al., 2018; Weeks et al., 2017; Rusu et al., 2016; Goodwin et al., 2015; McGuire et al., 2015).

In response to the September 11 attacks, the United States deployed the world’s most advanced military to support the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) were the longest-running conflicts in the country, toppling Saddam Hussein’s government and suppressing insurgents occupying areas in Iraq and GWOT in Afghanistan. These long-standing conflicts have had a psychological impact on much of the country’s military personnel.

According to the National Academies Press (2020), nearly two million military personnel served in the OIF and OEF. Among those served, a large portion of the population has experienced mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. The significant increase in mental illness has completely saturated the military health and justice systems over the past 20 years. More than 40,000 military service members have been diagnosed with PTSD immediately after OIF and OEF, forcing some to separate from service (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2020, para. 1). Therefore, between 11 and 20 in every 100 Veterans may suffer from PTSD in any given year (US Department of Veterans Affairs, nd, para. 1).

Umbrasas (2020) studied the ubiquity of the diagnosis of PTSD among military service members who were referred to mental health boards to determine their competence and criminal responsibility to stand trial. In addition, the study assessed whether PTSD was considered a serious mental illness or a defect that could impact the military’s ability to move forward with trial procedures. The results showed that over 13% of referrals had been diagnosed with PTSD. Of those diagnosed, none met the criteria for unfit to stand trial. However, 30% met the insanity board criteria for severe mental illness or defect. A member was found not criminally responsible because of the dissociation which is a criterion (symptom) of PTSD.

Due to severe psychological trauma, forensic psychologists work closely with neuropsychologists and neurologists to assess the severity of mental illness for legal and medical purposes. This is all the more important as forensic psychologists must consider the skills, criminal culpability and motives of military personnel that give rise to criminal hearings. Their professional opinion is important, as the competence and criminal culpability of the accused are crucial to military actions.

Rising mental health issues have flooded the military justice system, increasing the need for forensic psychologists to help with psychological and criminal matters. In addition, psychological problems have exacerbated domestic and physical assault, sex crimes, murder and other crimes which have increased the number of cases brought to military courts. Mental health issues have been the basis of the determination of psychological disabilities, assessments of skills and insanity, criminal cases and convictions, especially for death penalty hearings. Forensic psychologists have worked diligently to bridge the gap between psychology and legal issues and credible assessments for military courts.

The increase in military crimes has been reported to be linked to anti-social and high-risk behavior due to mental health issues. During deployments, the propensity for unhealthy alcohol consumption, illicit drug use and criminal behavior was significantly elevated. Although illicit drug use in the military has declined over the past 5-10 years, opioid and prescription abuse has increased. In 2009 alone, approximately 3.8 million military physicians prescribed pain relievers, primarily for military injuries caused by combat or training missions (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2019, para. 4).

Alcohol abuse is the most common form of abuse among active duty personnel. The increased exposure to combat, especially trauma and violence, has exacerbated alcohol use. Binge drinking has been reported to be the highest form of alcohol abuse among those on active duty at 30 percent. Evidence suggests that such risky behavior leads to an increase in crime. Snowden et al. (2017) collected data over a 12-year period (i.e., 2002 to 2014) to examine the prevalence of self-reported behaviors, criminal justice involvement, and substance abuse among military personnel. The results determined that more criminal activity, substance abuse, and lifetime arrests were more common than the general public.

While everyone’s case is different, forensic psychologists should stress the importance of having standardized methods to mitigate disability, unreliability and inaccuracy through systematic diagnosis, assessment measures. standardized, simulation assessments and the impact of trauma in the military on psychological reports. This is especially important because there is an increase in mental illnesses which correlates with an increase in crime within the military. Forensic psychologists play a critical role within the military justice system in how defense lawyers can build the most effective teams for their clients’ defense cases.

Bill Oxford on Unsplash


Source: Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Why the Need for Forensic Psychology in Military Courts?

Defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges and psychologists offer expert advice to develop effective strategies for court proceedings. There is a need to broaden the scope of forensic psychology within military courts so that psychologists can better understand the nature and processes of the military system. Additionally, military lawyers and their teams work closely with mental health experts to effectively interpret psychological reports and determine their impact on court cases.

In military trials, there are many opportunities to expose and conceptualize psychology and the law. The military justice system remains a relevant, rigorous and thorough litigation process and is a symbol of discipline, fairness, justice and consequence management for military policies and procedures. Forensic psychologists are needed, from consulting on strategy and jury selection to educating military panels on the military landscape and suggestibility, and coercive control in performing forensic assessments (Stein & Younggren , 2019, para. 1). It is imperative that the military identify preparedness gaps and provide the necessary treatment for the force on active duty.

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