Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX launches Special Concentration in Forensic Psychology

November 6th, 2013
The inaugural class front l-r, Valerie Lemay, Alli Copp, Catherine Gallagher, Brenna Gavel and Brianna Boyle. Back: Stewart Barclay, Justine Lucas, Angelina MacLellan, Dr. Margo Watt, and Chris Lively

As part of his practicum in StFX’s new two-year Special Concentration in Forensic Psychology, student Chris Lively is giving guitar lessons to seven inmates at Nova Institution for Women, a multilevel security federal prison in Truro, NS.

The physics and psychology graduate who returned to StFX specifically to take this special concentration also happens to be an East Coast Music Award nominated artist and when the institution was looking to provide therapeutic activity for several complex inmates, his skills fit.

The experience, he says, has been amazing.

“What an opportunity it is to have this chance. It’s a great opportunity to work one-on-one at the undergraduate level, which is unique,” says Mr. Lively.

“Through this special concentration, we have the opportunity to see the lecture material come to life.”

“You never know what you’re going to learn,” agrees Catherine Gallagher, one of nine students accepted this year into this unique-in-Canada program that provides academic knowledge, and also gives students hands-on experience participating in practica in forensic settings such as prisons, courts, addiction services and forensic hospitals.

“I’m really happy to be able to participate in this,” says Ms. Gallagher, completing her StFX thesis on how early attachment issues influence anti-social behaviours in women offenders. “I knew it would provide me with many opportunities and fuel my passion, the fire inside me to know why people do what they do.”

It also provides a terrific opportunity to look at communities (populations) who are often misunderstood and to try to help, she says.

“We’re trying to look at why people do the things they do, how does this happen, and what does the research tell us. We’re hoping these students gain a better understanding,” says coordinator and StFX psychology professor Dr. Margo Watt, a clinical forensic psychologist who has conducted forensic risk assessments, comprehensive mental health assessments, and clinical direction to mental health services for the Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) for over 15 years.

Her research interests in this area include the assessment and prediction of risk, personality characteristics of specific types of offenders, and stress among correctional staff.

“It’s also about prevention, to identify people who are at-risk,” Dr. Watt says. “The more we know, the more opportunity we have to intervene before bad things happen.”

The nine students embarked on the inaugural year of the offering in September after being accepted into the special concentration in June following an application process. Most are planning careers in clinical psychology, social work, behavioral counselling, the law, and addiction services. 

This broad range of career interests is something that appeals to third year psychology student Brianna Boyle who says fellow students in the special concentration are supportive of each other and often learn from each other’s knowledge.

The special concentration allows students to focus their studies in forensic psychology—covering topics at the interface of psychology and law—in addition to their standard Bachelor of Arts program requirements, Dr. Watt says. Students graduate with a four-year BA in psychology with a special concentration in forensic psychology.

Students complete two practica of at least 40 hours in approved forensic-related settings. This could mean shadowing psychologists and other forensic staff in their work, receiving relevant on-the-job training, and working with trained staff.

“It is hoped that that this Special Concentration in Forensic Psychology will provide students with a competitive advantage in the workplace, graduate and professional schools,” says Dr. Watt.

The idea for the offering grew out of a popular forensics psychology course Dr. Watt pioneered at StFX over a decade ago. When she came to campus, she had experience working with Correctional Services Canada and recognized many people didn’t know a lot about federal institutions (how our correctional service works) and thought it important to provide some education.

She developed the forensic psychology course in 2001 and every year takes students on field trips to forensic psychology settings, something she calls “a big component of the learning that goes on.” Experts also come to speak to the class including RCMP officers who demonstrate polygraph tests, and talk about police stress, and crown attorneys speaking on Canadian law. Students now also organize a day-long event each March bringing industry professionals, often StFX alumni, back to campus to talk about how they got from StFX to where they are now.

“It had grown so much. I thought it could be a program so I spent the last several years developing the special concentration, which combines academic learning with hands-on experience.”

This unique offering requires much collaboration and partnership with community-based organizations like the CSC, who Dr. Watt says have been very generous

Interested psychology students who meet the required criteria can apply to the special concentration at the end of their second year or the beginning of their third. For more information, contact Dr. Watt at mwatt@stfx.ca 

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