Dr Yaseen Ally

It is known that South Africa has alarmingly high crime and violence rates and despite the various interventions that have been implemented on a variety of levels, crime experienced both individually and collectively continues to affect the lives of many. While the psychological effects of violence and crime have been understood and effective treatment modalities developed to cope with these extraordinary experiences, much is yet to be known about the subjective effect crime and violence may have on the observer. In fact, the subjective effect of crime and violence – based on what we see, read and hear (and not so much what we personally experience), may in fact shift the manner in which we respond to the world around us. Psychologist too, despite our ethical understanding, obligation and implementation, may experience these subjectivities too.

Forensic work, in essence, is work that takes a practitioner into a space where the intentional violation of bodily space has occurred. Rape, child abuse and neglect for example, may be very common cases in the forensic space. As psychological practitioners then, how would we frame our interactions with an individual who may, or may not, be guilty? For me at least, this is where the good, the bad and the ugly of forensic work comes into play.

The good: as trained professionals, we are mandated to behave in ways that are of benefit to the psychological well-being of our clients – which should direct the manner in which we understand, frame, analyse, diagnose and treat a patient or client. This is of paramount importance to any psychological professional who is registered with the HPCSA, yet, given the nature of crime and violence – our subjectivities may emerge more strongly when working within a forensic framework.

The bad: consider the following scenario. Your client is a 27 year of male accused of rape. You are the psychologist assigned to the case and your expert opinion will be used in the final judgement. While as psychologists we hold onto our ethical framework at all times, one’s subjectivity, given the nature of the case, may be triggered more strongly than when working with other cases.

The ugly: The clash between our ethical code of conduct and containing our potentially subjective response (which may not be very direct), may cause some conflict for the psychologist, with resulting negative implication (s) for the client. If our subjectivity influences professional judgement, then we may be responsible for one of two outcomes. First, we may provide professional judgement that is imbued with our own subjective understanding and experience (direct and/or indirect) of the offending client’s crime. Secondly, psychologists are self-aware or at least we should be. This gives us the ability to ‘check ourselves’ as we work with our clients through ourselves. An ethical psychologist will be able to identify when they become, or may be becoming subjective. In some instances, one may even begin to behave in ways that are more objective and less critical of the client, as we may not want to draw ourselves into a subjective space.

Psychology in forensic settings have already become a formidable industry within which psychologists in South Africa have begun working within. While there is much to be known and learnt about forensic psychology in South Africa, as professionals, we can start engaging with the idea of our work including more forensic-based counselling, assessments and therapy in the years to come. This engagement includes us digging into our subjective understanding of the typical cases that one may come across when working in the field. And, one must begin asking oneself what the good, the bad and ugly of forensic case work will be, for you?

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