Academics and Research

Pioneer Symposium: Professor to speak on mental illness and the courts

The Aurora theater shooting trial that wrapped up last month in Denver brought a myriad of questions, from media outlets around the globe, about mental illness and the insanity defense. One of the most-cited experts in the case was Neil Gowensmith, a clinical assistant professor in DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) and director of the DU-based Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training (Denver FIRST).

“What a moment in time it was if you have a master’s program in forensic psychology and the eyes of the country are focused on Denver,” he says. “As tragic as it was, it was pretty unique. You read the papers every day and you bring it to class and say, ‘Here’s what they’re talking about and here’s what it means and here’s the different directions it could go.’ But because the eyes of the country are focused on Denver, we also have a real obligation to try to set the record straight about the insanity defense, about mental illness, about people with mental illness.”

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Gowensmith will do just that as one of more than 20 faculty members who will lead sessions during Pioneer Symposium (Sept. 25–26), an event designed to introduce alumni and others to the variety of research and thinking happening on campus. His presentation, “Mental Illness and the Courts: Myths, Challenges, and … Hope?,” will use the theater shooting trial as a jumping-off point for exploring issues around forensic psychology — the intersection of psychology and the legal system.

“[The theater shooting] was a terrible tragedy, and I do believe that James Holmes experienced a significant amount of mental illness, but people shouldn’t equate mental illness with dangerousness,” says Gowensmith, referring to the defendant in the case, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. “They shouldn’t assume that this is what people with mental illness are going to do, because it was totally out of the norm. Most people with mental illness are not violent. They are law-abiding citizens, and they never do anything that’s approaching anything like that. We want to use this time to correct that potential stigma or misinformation.”

The stigma around mental illness is one of many issues Gowensmith tackles in the classroom, preparing GSPP students for work in the courts, probation offices, jails, prisons, treatment agencies and other facilities. Denver FIRST, which he founded last summer, is his bid to make DU the go-to spot in the West for research, outreach, training and expertise around forensic mental health.

“The idea is to put all of the forensic expertise that we have in [the Graduate School of Professional Psychology] building under one umbrella, so that it’s easier to market, easier to make more visible,” he says. “There’s no such institute in the West, and there really should be. The University of Denver should be the go-to place when people have forensic mental health questions or needs.”

The center’s reputation has begun to spread, he says. There is an uptick in the number of attorneys and judges reaching out to the DU institute to perform mental health evaluations, and a recent Denver FIRST report on the overall quality of court-ordered evaluations across the country has multiple states reconsidering their procedures — and perhaps eventually contacting DU for help.

“When a person like James Holmes is pleading insanity, then, as you saw here, lots of experts come in with their evaluations and their reports, and they all see the person and they write down what they think is going to happen and they submit that to the court,” Gowensmith says. “And it’s assumed that those reports are of good quality and that the opinions are valid. Even though lawyers are going to argue against them and try to pick them apart, they’re scientifically admissible.

“We’ve done a fair amount of research on real exams that are submitted to the court on real cases, and found that the quality is more mediocre than we’d like to admit,” he continues. “The quality, the consistency, our ability to really use those in an effective way is not as good as what we want.”

The solution, Gowensmith says, lies in better training, better certification and more standardized criteria. The importance of improving the process, he says, can’t be underemphasized.

“Our field, as much as we have to offer, I think we need to hold ourselves close to the fire to make sure that we’re doing the best job that we can, because these are people’s lives at stake,” he says. “I think DU is on the forefront. We have good research and good students who are getting trained; we’re at the forefront of that kind of research agenda; and we’re constantly consulting with other places to get them on board. The idea is that a place like Wisconsin would say, ‘We need to do a better job with our evaluators. We need to have improved standards and improved quality. Let’s call the University of Denver, because they know how to make it happen.’”



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