Forensic Psychiatric Nursing: A Unique APRN Opportunity

This is an article about my locum tenens assignment at a state run psychiatric forensic facility. Patients are committed here for an average of seven years. As a provider, with a two month assignment, I learned about patients who have crossed the line into criminal activity during psychiatric decompensations and strategies to help them achieve stability.


  • Specializes in Psychiatric Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

After thirty years psychiatric nursing experience in various roles, locum tenens is perfect for me. When I want to work, I sign up with a few agencies, tell them my availability and hope something will come through. This time I can only work in 2 month blocks- a normal assignment is three months so I was not sure anyone would take me for only two months. Luckily my recruiter found me a spot.

"The position is in corrections." She said. My husband was immediately worried about my safety. I had my interview and I found out the facility was a forensic hospital, not a correctional setting and that I would have inpatient responsibilities. I have many years of inpatient experience working as a staff nurse and a manager. This will be my first inpatient experience as a provider.

After a week of orientation mostly about HIPAA, and using the computer system, I start on the units. I have two inpatient units and one 4 hour block of outpatients. I am on transition units where patients are preparing for discharge to the community. They work at least 15 hours per week at on campus jobs, go to groups, and have privileges to go outside, some alone.. For admission to the facility patients are committed by a judge as mentally ill and dangerous. Many of these patients have caused harm to other people, usually when they were not taking medications or were abusing substances. The average length of stay is seven years and the patients home community has input into advancing privileges and determining discharge.

My role is to do a psychiatric interview and review psychiatric medications at least every three months on my assigned units. On the inpatient units, this is called "rounds". Patients are invited in one at a time by appointment. Several staff are in the room to observe or participate in my interview. I have never interviewed patients like this before. One of the social workers told me she likes to come in the room to make sure the patients are giving me the correct information and this can be helpful. A pharmacist is there also, to take notes and sometimes participates. I try to talk to her before or after my time with the patient so I am not distracted by medication information during my interview. Since I am doing the assessment and making the medication decisions, I have to make sure I am comfortable. I also put in my own orders which is a change for them. Because of the cumbersome computer system, previous locums had operated using mostly verbal orders which were inputted by either the nurse or the pharmacist.

There is a shortage of psychiatric providers at this facility. Systems like the pharmacist taking notes, which are minutes of the interview, and verbal orders are a way to provide some continuity and compensate for the shortage. I am the sixth psychiatric provider in two years. They are recruiting and in the meantime I learn a lot.

The main things I learn about are high dose neuroleptics, polypharmacy, and clozapine. Traditional psychopharmacology tells us to streamline medications. With these patients, it is not entirely clear if patients could do as well on lower doses or if they need the high dose for stability. There also seem to be a lot of negative symptoms of schizophrenia, ie poor motivation, blunted affect, which one of the psychologist says is not treatable with medication. My research tells me medication is worth a try but I am not there long enough to introduce this. I wonder if some patients are overmedicated but I am reluctant to adjust doses very much because of being new, unless, of course it was clearly indicated. And I become proficient in laboratory guidelines for long term medication monitoring.

Every patient has a primary MD who has been treating them for years and each patient gets a comprehensive physical every year. These MD's are readily available for consultation. The pharmacists are also available for consultation and also seem to like attending my rounds. There are also other professionals including psychologists, social workers, nurses, and security counselors. I found out later that there are some psychology fellowship classes I could have attended if I had known about them.

I am scheduled to return to this facility in a few months. Locums gives me the opportunity to learn. When I return, I look forward to getting a better understanding of high dose neuropletics and polypharmacy and I may try to medicate negative symptoms . Or since I now know the system, I may be assigned to an acute admission unit where I will learn about rapid titrations of psychiatric medications and ordering seclusions and restraints. If I come back to this unit, I will better be able to treat the patients since I have interviewed everyone at least once and have the trust of some of the staff.

Forensic psychiatry is not a popular area of psychiatry. Many of these patients are severely and persistently mentally ill and have crossed the line into criminal activity. They are well care for at this facility as the long term psychiatric patients which they are. Many of them will never be able to live in the community. In the old state hospitals and if they hadn't committed a crime, many of these patients would have stayed for years living in a community within the hospital. Some may have been discharged to group homes with case management. Some of my forensic patients may also be discharged. Evaluating stability, degree of outpatient containment and likelihood of relapse is very challenging and the focus of much of their treatment.

Psychcns has worked in psychiatric nursing since the early 80's. She loves the study of the mind and has enough interest in medications to be a talented and competent prescriber. Trained as a therapist before the decade of the brain gained influence, she brings principles of psychotherapy to all her patient encounters.

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Meriwhen, ASN, BSN, MSN, RN

4 Articles; 7,907 Posts

Specializes in Psych ICU, addictions.

Great article, thank you for sharing your experiences :)


246 Posts

I've seen the psychiatrist on Law and Order and always wondered what psych APRNs actually do in real life forensic nursing. Thanks for sharing!!


3 Articles; 859 Posts

Specializes in Psychiatric Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

The other thing forensics psych np's do which I should have included is determine competency to take or refuse psychiatric medications. This can involve preparing documents for court and going to court to present arguments. The judge

makes the decision. Regular inpatient psych np's do this too and the law varies by state.

jadelpn, LPN, EMT-B

51 Articles; 4,800 Posts

This. is. the. best. job. ever.

Very intriguing, fascinating!

Would love to follow your progress!! Thanks for sharing!

What?! This sounds right up my alley. You got me whan I read "forensic" and "psychiatry".

Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

142 Articles; 9,981 Posts

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych. Has 26 years experience.

Absolutely fascinating! Thank you for this glimpse inside the walls of a state institution---the patients there are lucky to have someone like you who tries to think outside the box in determining the best treatment for each individual.

Specializes in Med-Surg, Oncology, Neurology, Rehab. Has 15 years experience.


Nice article, would like more info. Did you sign up with an agency? Thanks for the info.


3 Articles; 859 Posts

Specializes in Psychiatric Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

Nice article, would like more info. Did you sign up with an agency? Thanks for the info.

This assignment was with Staff Care.

Davey Do

1 Article; 10,249 Posts

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years). Has 44 years experience.

Great Article, Psychcns! Well written and Enlightening.

Medication Titrating and Monitoring are such important Facets in the Treatment of any Illness. Often times, Non Treatment Compliance is a Major Reason for Exacerbations of Psychiatric Symptoms and Subsequent Recidivism for Inpatient Admissions. Closely Monitored Patients are more likely to experience Success in dealing with their Psychiatic Illness than those left to their own Accord.

It was mentioned that there is a Possibility that some Patients may continue to have Stable Psychiatric Symptoms on Lower Doses of Medication. Titrating Medication for the Patients' Welfare is Worthy Endeavor. However, as it sometimes happens, Medication Titrating is Motivated by Other Reasons. Reasons like Cost Effectiveness, Bureacratic Monoitoring, or Provider Preferences has been known to Fix Situations which were not Broken.

The Program in which you have been Involved appears to Monitor its Recipients well with Therapeutic Outcomes. It must Feel great to be a Clog in the Wheel of such a Positive Enterprise!

Davey Do

1 Article; 10,249 Posts

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years). Has 44 years experience.

Sorry about the Double Post.

I blame my Computer.

Or the Nut behind the Keys.


233 Posts

Specializes in psych, general, emerg, mash.

why does everyone compare reality to fictional shows as Law & Order. Its TV. Those are big words..must be big egos out there. Forensic science is good, but like most, hang your ego at the door. As long as everyone works togehter, and tells the patient they are full of ****, when need to be, it will work.