At the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP), students and faculty work together to advance the field of forensic psychology. Through research, mental health assessments and expert testimony in court, they help create outcomes that benefit individuals and communities.
“Forensic psychology is the intersection between mental health and the law,” says Neil Gowensmith, associate professor in GSPP’s Forensic Psychology Master’s Program.
The meeting of psychology and law often conjures up a range of pop culture and current affairs references: the psychological evaluators on “CSI”; the behavioral science unit on Netflix’s “Mindhunter”; and, of course, high-profile insanity defense cases. Think of Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991.
“It’s a bit of forensic psychology, and these things happen,” Gowensmith says. “We are consulting with police and law enforcement to try to understand why crimes are being treated the way they are. And we certainly get on the stand and are asked to give our opinion on someone’s sanity or competence – those things happen, but never like they do on TV.
Instead, the work of Denver FIRST (Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training) focuses on supporting the justice system with expertise to help identify the right treatment and remedy for people with health issues. mental.
“Our field, our courts and our governments know that current approaches to mental health don’t work well – often these forensic systems are ineffective,” says Gowensmith. “They are unfair. People waiting in jail for services — that can do some pretty terrible things. When they show symptoms of mental illness, they may hurt themselves or assault others. And what they really need is treatment.
Denver FIRST was established in 2014 to help the GSPP meet the demands of Colorado and surrounding states for forensic mental health. At any one time, at least four faculty members and more than 15 master’s students work with community organizations and clients on forensic psychology projects.
One such community organization is Sustained aurora, a new show that invites a trio of college students to Aurora City Jail four days a week. Students assess inmates for behavioral and mental health issues before seeing a judge. The result is that some inmates can then access appropriate treatment that would otherwise be difficult for them to obtain on their own and outside the system, instead of receiving a prison sentence which often only exacerbates the problem.
Pioneering research is also part of the work of the institute. Each year, the program welcomes a postdoctoral fellow who continues their research beyond ongoing studies by faculty, staff and students. This year’s fellow is Cassandra Bailey, who earned a Ph.D. from Sam Houston State and is working with Denver FIRST and students to help advance the field.
In addition to the research she conducts on immigration court for her fellowship, she also collaborates with students, helping them publish research on areas they find most interesting. “I do forensic research, and then I also do forensic assessments, primarily fitness to stand trial. It’s one of the things that makes Denver FIRST so special,” she said. “In addition to clinical work, you also have the chance to be a junior teacher – [to] research and work with and collaborate with students. Nowhere else really offers this.
In February, the University received R1 classification from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, thus joining the ranks of other universities with the highest levels of research activity. DU is now the only private R1 university in the Rocky Mountain region. Gowensmith and Bailey see this as a big step for the program and the University.
“With R1, we can increase the scale and scope of our research,” says Gowensmith. “It increases our chances of being successful in obtaining grants, but I think it also attracts funders and private donors who see the University’s visibility increase a bit with R1. And it increases our voice at the table when we work and develop partnerships with other colleagues, and that just puts us in a different seat at this table.
Bailey sees the move to R1 status as a big boost for students and their research. “Research happens more easily, obviously when you have funding, but there are a lot of opportunities for research, especially when you work in an institution that supports research. It allows things like full access to Qualtrics and all the different reviews. It’s much easier to do research when you’re in an institution like that.
Ultimately, however, it is about helping the justice system and addressing inequities when a defendant appears in court. Gowensmith says, “Our work is really about science and social justice. We try to answer questions from the court. We can help the court understand the person’s criminal liability and public safety concerns, but also balance that with the person’s mental health needs.