Throughout the history of psychology, misunderstandings and fads have come and gone, often giving this branch of science a bad name. People think of Freud as being a bit sick in the motivational theory department; there are rumours that Jung believed his dead grandfather was talking to him and Dr Spock is now condemned for setting parents on the wrong path.
I can understand why anyone would want to toss psychology out on it’s head, but the reason why academia hasn’t done away with it, is it is necessary. When people hurt, especially if they are mentally ill, we need diagnostic procedures, explanations and procedures for helping. Healing for the mind is as critical as healing for the body.
When I was studying Absalom’s sociopathic behaviour, I hit a wall that I didn’t know was there. Absalom carries every symptom of someone with antisocial personality disorder (or sociopathy). He also exhibits strong narcissistic and psychopathic traits, which means that he was entirely ego driven, without any form of remorse and that he had no mental process to call his actions into question and potentially stop them. That was very helpful for me in working out why he did, what he did. However, in the process of working through this, I also discovered how badly people with Absalom’s behaviour are still treated, and how often the parents are blamed for their children’s behaviour, (which is beyond their control.) I got really angry. (To understand Absalom, please see this article which explains his condition. http://articles.faithwriters.com/reprint-article-details.php?article=32723)
I am accustomed to people who are battling with mental illness, being treated with compassion and understanding. There is acknowledgement that what they are going through is largely out of their control. However, when you get to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy) and Psychopathology (psychopath, once termed megalomania), there is little sympathy. Why? Because they scare us; and because over one hundred years ago, when knowledge was thin on the ground, someone made a decision which still haunts people.
Since the late 1800s, these disorders have been considered a series of static behavioural traits. They are not episodic, neither are they treatable. Thus anyone with any of these three disorders is simply not considered to be ill, even though they are known to not be able to entirely control how their brain functions. At this point, compassion can easily slam to a halt and these people are stigmatised and ostracised as being an uncontrollable menace. They aren’t ‘sick,’ even though the mental building blocks that made them up are faulty. They destroy personal relationships, commit crimes and can murder, so we respond with fear and hate, shunning the probability that they are in some manner ‘ill,’ but just haven’t been understood. In this day and age, we should know better and it makes me furious that we don’t; and the criminal justice system appears to be adamant, they the Law shouldn’t change their stand on how they treat these criminals. They are correct that crime should be punishment, but incorrect in their inflexibility in understanding these disorders.
Thankfully, not all mental health professionals make that same inflexible mistake. With the newer sciences of genetics, and investigation into the hard-wiring of sufferers brains, we now know that these disorders may very well be just as uncontrollable as schizophrenia. Causes may include traumatic head injury, limbic neural maldevelopment, or neurotransmitter problems, but we don’t know enough yet to make a proper diagnosis. Efforts are being made in places such as the British Journal of Psychiatry, to stop the misunderstandings, and find ways to assist sufferers. Clinical staff who work with these patients know that sometimes, as the patient ages, their empathy level and self-control can become somewhat better, but they still never function within a normal range of behaviours.
To date, medication cannot be taken to help the sufferer’s brains act normally, as proper impulse control, empathy and personality balancing mechanisms are not built in in the first place. Even today, three thousand years after Absalom, nothing can be done to help people with his disorder. The patient sees no need to change, as their brain cannot detect that they did anything which requires rectification. So far, there is no substance, miracle-producing counselling, or sudden shock, which can switch a brain into a normal mode.
What makes this situation worse, is that we cannot excuse all the behaviour of these people entirely on the grounds of bad brain wiring. People with these disorders still know right from wrong, and are able to choose not to murder, lie, cheat, commit arson, rape, or con. Often, the vilified patients wind up in prison and/or suffering from anxiety disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal behaviour, which of course makes things worse and adds to the overall cost to society.
What we fear and don’t understand results in neglect and hate. If we understood and acted with compassion, no matter how abhorrent these conditions are, perhaps we could reduce their toll on both the individual and society?
The concept that ‘the fault is the parents,’ is criticised by many practitioners who work with these patients, who know from case histories that this is not the story behind the disorder. This theory appears to have come from a clinical attempt at an explanation for the existence of the disorders. Society needs that explanation to feel secure. Without it, no one wants to hear that there are psychopaths running around in our world, who we don’t understand and can’t treat, and who cause the majority of violent crimes. So a theory was developed, arguing that because the process of a child’s ego being curtailed to a normal level starts in early childhood, something had to have gone wrong at that point, such as abuse or poor parenting. No biological cause could be identified, so obviously, the fault must belong with the chief caregivers of small children: the parents. This theory is backed up by a current idea that trauma in childhood can change the hardwiring of how a brain works. Again, these new ideas need more study.
These disorders start in very early childhood and are seen in what is called Conduct Disorder. Parents who care for these children suffer the consequences of an uncontrollable child from the very beginning, and are especially powerless to rectify the situation, even though they are the most motivated to do so. Whilst there would be some occasions where the parents are at fault, and poor parenting can produce some of the behaviour traits of these disorders, we are still left with questions. As I argued in my article on Absalom, people who have experienced extreme abuse, often still exhibit empathy, and are not as damaged in the areas of behavioural control and excessive ego. Something more is going on here which science hasn’t caught up with just yet.
Just because we don’t have all the facts now, doesn’t mean they won’t be discovered. I have hopes that at some stage in the near future, researchers will stumble across that missing factor which explains why people with these disorders suffer from the challenges they have. When and if that can lead to effective treatment, I don’t know, but it would be a step forward.
In the meantime, we need to be as patient with psychology as we are with medicine. There is no treatment for cancer yet. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all treatment as different forms of cancer have different causes, and act in different ways. Mental health is the same. Each person is unique and treatments need tailoring to what works for the individual. But one thing doesn’t change, no matter who you are supporting: there is never a call not to be compassionate. Regardless of how any condition may be understood or mislabelled, we must still treat everyone with respect, and give them the human rights that everyone deserves.
– The distinction between personality disorder and mental illness | The British Journal of Psychiatry: http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/180/2/110
– DSM 5 Overview Antisocial Personality Disorder:
– Absalom: A Biblical Portrait of a Sociopath:
Comments are off as Cate is on Easter holidays.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Please note that this does NOT apply to any of the images on this site except for the free Psalm images which are marked as free. Most photos are purchased stock photos. It is ILLEGAL for you to take and use them, whether for yourself, commercially or for a non-profit venture such as a church or Bible Study. If you have not bought these photos from the source, the stock photography company has every right to sue you.