Dr Sohom Das from London, is not just your regular Consulting Forensic Psychiatrist. Currently in his early 40s, Sohom is quirky, witty, dabbles in stand-up comedy and does battle rapping on TV. He is also a debut fiction novelist, writing a story on a girl in a psychiatric ward, but his day job includes dealing with assessment and treatment of mentally disordered offenders in prisons, secure hospitals, and the community. He works as an expert witness in criminal and civil court cases and is a regular columnist in Huffington Post. Some of his articles very articulately talk about the alternative approach that the system should have towards mentally ill prisoners, as the government cuts affect them severely.
Growing up and interest
Growing up in a village near Stockport, Sohom’s Bengali parents came from Kolkata, India, where theirs was the only non-white family. Sohom’s mum was a secretary and dad was a chemical engineer, now both retired. As Asian parents would, they ensured Sohom took up a mainstream subject, though his creative side is reflected in his writings, comic timing and battle raps.
Studying psychiatry, Sohom did many placements, and that is how his interest particularly in forensic psychiatry came about. “When you are a junior doctor, you have to undertake six months experience in different types of psychiatry,” he told Asian Voice. “I did six months in forensic psychiatry and I found the stories of the patients fascinating. Every patient has committed a fairly serious crime, anything from assault to murder- and there is always a reason. The vast majority had some kind of abuse or problem growing up viz. emotional, sexual, drug addiction. But because they are quite dangerous, they have much complicated needs. Forensic psychiatry deals with smaller number of patients for a longer time and it is much more detailed.”
Moral vs legal obligations
As exciting as the profession could be, it is naturally difficult to balance between the moral and legal obligations as a human, but how does he manage it as a doctor? Sohom who loves hiphop, comedy nights, and tends not to take work home so that he can enjoy with his wife and two young children, said, “I think to be a good forensic psychiatrist, you have to be absolutely objective and neutral- your moral thought and attitude should not come in at all. You should only comment on the mental illness, which has relevance to the offender. I don’t find it difficult but some of my colleagues do, but I find it easy to detach my emotion.
“Occasionally non-forensic psychiatrists when asked to do these kind of assessments, in my view could be very judgemental. You have to appreciate that it is for the court to serve justice and punish and it is up to the judge to do so, whereas you are only there to assist the judge by assessing the mental illness of the offender.”
The job gets even more challenging as many tend to fabricate their symptoms or make them up entirely in an attempt to be absolved of the allegations, or for leniency with their sentences. Sohom told the newsweekly that it is easy to fake such symptoms but it is definitely hard to do it convincingly, in front of someone like him, who has worked so closely with different settings of this profession.
“I look at the evidence- witness statements, case papers, cctv footage, their old medical notes and make a judgement call about how they were,” he told us. “Occasionally we even get patients who pretend to be psychotic. I have to look through all the evidences, if something has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, been in and out of hospital, then potentially that might be true, if the CCTV footage shows they have been acting bizarrely, or police interviews show them talking about bizarre ideas, then all that indicate that what they might be saying is true. But if somebody has no history of mental illness at all, and suddenly say they have been hearing voices, you have to be cautious.”
While drugs and other substance abuse may lead to criminals returning to prisons, Sohom says there are certain things that mental health psychiatrist can help with, but there are somethings they can’t. “If somebody has a clear mental health disorder, that can be treated with medicine, but somebody does not want to treatment they can be detained and treated against their will. What can’t really be treated in the same degree is substance abuse,” he added.
Excited about debut novel
But among all this grim, there is a happy silver lining. Sohom who is an avid fiction short story writer, is now busy writing his debut novel, possibly out later this year, set in a psychiatric ward, loosely based on a real life patient he had treated years ago. “It is on an eighteen year girl who killed her sister. The story is about the aftermath- 3 years of journey.”
For more about Sohom see: www.sdas-author.com