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Utilizing Symptomatology Over Diagnoses in Legal Proceedings: A Forensic Psychologist's Perspective

by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.

Clinical & Forensic Psychologist

In forensic psychology, attorneys must understand the importance of describing specific symptomatology rather than relying solely on diagnoses for their clients. While diagnoses are essential in clinical settings, utilizing symptomatology can often provide a more precise and persuasive approach within a legal context.

First, diagnoses necessitate clients meeting specific diagnostic criteria, as delineated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5-TR (DSM-5-TR). However, this can prove challenging in many legal cases, as individuals may present with a range of symptoms that do not neatly fit into a single diagnosis. By focusing on symptomatology instead, attorneys can accurately convey their client's unique experiences and conditions without being limited by diagnostic criteria.

Additionally, symptomatology provides a comprehensive view of the client's mental state, allowing attorneys to effectively argue their case. Describing specific symptoms enables the attorney to depict how those symptoms impact the individual's daily life, behavior, decision-making abilities—their functioning.

Furthermore, focusing on symptomatology aids in overcoming potential biases or stigmas associated with certain diagnoses. In a courtroom setting, jurors and judges may have preconceived notions or misunderstandings about particular mental health conditions. By articulating the specific symptoms experienced by the client, attorneys can foster a clearer and more objective understanding of their client's mental state, potentially altering perceptions and ensuring fair treatment in court.

Finally, a thorough description of the client's experience, and meticulous elucidation of the client's specific symptoms, can help to establish the proximate cause of the client's emotional and functional problems.

In conclusion, I regularly advise attorneys to prioritize describing specific symptomatology rather than relying solely on diagnoses. This approach offers a more detailed and individualized understanding of the client's mental state, allowing attorneys to present a stronger case that resonates with jurors and judges. By focusing on symptomatology, attorneys can effectively bridge the gap between clinical psychology and the legal system, ensuring the best outcome for their clients.


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