Crime+Investigation talked to Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr Sohom Das, about his fascinating profession and what TV gets right and wrong about his profession.
What does a forensic psychiatrist do?
Psychiatrists investigate and treat mental illness and forensics is the law, so it's like a crossroads of the two.
I assess and rehabilitate anybody who's been accused of committing a serious offence that has a mental illness as well. Forensic psychiatrists usually work in one of three places, either inside prisons, or in courts, or within secure psychiatric units. I've done all three in my career but right now I'm doing mostly court work.
When I came out of medical school, I didn't have any kind of plan or any kind of inclination to go into any speciality. I randomly did a psychiatry placement and I found that was drawn to mentally ill people, I found I could speak to them and communicate with them quite well.
Within psychiatry, there are lots of different placements and one of those was forensic psychiatry, so I was working in a lot of hospitals with offenders and I just immediately found that fascinating. There’s always some sort of backstory and usually a reason why offenders have ended up becoming a) mentally ill and b) career criminals.
What's the biggest challenge about your job?
I think it probably appears more glamorous than it is, a lot of my job is going through paperwork. For every hour where I get to assess an interesting patient or be cross-examined or give evidence in court, I probably spend at least six or seven hours going through the evidence (medical data, witness statements and CCTV footage, for instance).
I think one of the most difficult and frustrating things is just the time it takes to go through all this stuff find the nuggets of information inside.
What does TV get right and wrong about your job?
One thing is that we have absolutely nothing to do with solving any crimes whatsoever. Things like criminal profiling, for example, that's not why forensic psychiatrists do. We assess people who are either on trial or who have already been to prison. We don't have anything to do with deciding whether they're guilty or not and I think that TV gets that wrong a lot.
We have very set roles, we don't overstep the boundaries. We don't do police investigations, we don't do the job of the barrister or a lawyer or a judge. I think dramas – and I understand why because it makes it more exciting – insinuate that everybody does a bit of all the jobs. Well, it doesn’t work like that at all.
Do prisoners suffer from common psychological issues?
There's no secret that mental illness is rife within prison and there are lots of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that the co-founding factors that cause mental illness, are the same that cause offending: drug abuse, poverty, being a victim of sexual abuse when you’re younger.
And then inside prisons, as you would expect, the environment can be very harsh which can initiate a new mental illness or cause a relapse in an established illness. Not just the common ones like anxiety and depression but less-common more severe ones like schizophrenia, mania and bipolar disorder, for example.
Most prisoners struggle though there is a small cohort that I find quite interesting who I think are naturally anti-social and who thrive in prison. If you’re a career criminal, and you're entrenched in the prison hierarchy and you have friends or family members who are in prison then, they do quite well.
Do you ever come across people who fake their mental illnesses?
It happens all the time. I would say it comes across my caseload at least once a month where defendants, either fake or exaggerate symptoms that they have. It’s easy to spot when people are fabricating or lying.
The first thing I always go by is their history. Generally speaking, mental illnesses, especially psychotic illnesses, don't appear out of the blue. They come on over the space of weeks or months, and they're quite a, quite gradual change. If somebody is seemingly psychotic suddenly out of the blue, it doesn't mean it's impossible, but it means it's unlikely.
I always go to medical notes, GP records, police reports, social services records to see if there's any change in their functioning. The second thing is I look at is their description of their actual mental state at the time of the offence and I cross-reference that with witness statements with the police.
If someone said that they were paranoid and hearing voices but the witness statements say that they were absolutely fine at the time, then I'm suspicious. The other thing is that people who are mentally ill, especially if they're paranoid don't have an agenda, they're not trying to convince me. They won't just suddenly tell me their deepest darkest paranoia, I have to dig at it.
All four forensic psychiatrists in the court case said the same thing. They all diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia which is quite unusual as there is usually a range of opinions. Yet the judge dismissed the opinions of all four. This suggests that the judge already had preconceived ideas. It looks like to me that the psychiatrists were correct because he did eventually get transferred to Broadmoor with that diagnosis.
I think it was a political decision for the judge to dismiss their opinions. Understandably there was so much vitriol and hatred towards Sutcliffe from the public for the heinous nature of his crime. People didn't want to give him what is perceived as the easy option and accept that he's mentally ill, they just wanted to see him suffer and get punished.
I think I mentioned this in my video but I think people assume that going to a secure hospital is an easier option, whereas I don't think it necessarily is. People think that these hospitals are very cushy places but they're not.
If you had a chance to talk to any serial killer, living or dead in a professional capacity who would it be and why?
Two spring to mind. One would be Ted Bundy because, by all accounts, he's a very charming man, which is quite typical for a psychopath. I’d be quite intrigued just to see how he made me feel and to see whether he was as charming as I’ve heard in the documentaries.
The others would be Anders Brevik because he's a little bit like Peter Sutcliffe in that was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The difference is that some of the psychiatrists agreed to that diagnosis and some of the psychiatrists didn't. So just my clinical skills, I'd be interested to assess him just purely to see whether I think he’s got that diagnosis or not.
How do you balance the day-to-day demands of being a Forensic Psychiatrist with your personal life?
I think that I'm just naturally quite emotionally detached from it all. Part of the trick is just realising where work ends, and where home life begins.
Psychiatrists have to be aware of the boundaries of their roles. When I give evidence in court, it's not really my business to give an opinion whether I whether I like somebody or not. I shouldn't let my own personal feelings about the defendant bleed into the evidence because my evidence is only to inform the court about psychiatric opinion. Lastly, I have quite a busy life, I don't have time to feel emotionally invested in cases.
What’s your favourite True Crime, book podcast or series?
There’s a YouTube channel by a guy called Shaun Attwood and he’s also written a couple of books which I’ve read.
He’s a guy from Manchester who used to live in Arizona and he ended up becoming this huge ecstasy kingpin. He's not a gangster or anything, he just like throwing raves. He ended up getting caught and spent, seven years in a maximum-security prison in Arizona [Arizona Department of Corrections]. I’m just fascinated by his channel and his books.
You can listen to Psych for Sore Minds on all major podcasting platforms.