More and more often, people are claiming mental “illness” of one type or another as an excuse for bad character and bad behavior. And some of the most notorious bad actors, after having run afoul of the law and finally brought to justice, have claimed victim of a “disorder” status and argued for “treatment” in place of punishment. There are many reasons for this trend, some of which involve the way psychiatric conditions are categorized and diagnosed. But the trend of which I speak is deeply disturbing because of what it’s done to erode a sense of personal accountability, which is why I believe the trend so sorely needs to be reversed.
Some fairly egregious examples of the trend so see bad behavior as a manifestation of illness have made headlines over the past couple of years. The notorious child rapist Ariel Castro, who satisfied his lust for teenage girls by carefully stalking and then abducting three young women, holding them hostage for years, and regularly assaulting them, outrageously claimed it was wrong for others to see him as a “monster” or predator. Rather, he argued, he was truly “sick,” himself the victim of a severe pornography “addiction.” Then there were the three drug-dealing teenage thugs caught on their school bus surveillance camera beating a classmate within an inch of his to “teach him a lesson” about “snitching” to school authorities (For more on this case see: Anger Management for Bus Beaters: Justice Misguided?. Their attorneys argued they had “anger management” issues and really needed “therapy” as opposed to punishment (even though, as juveniles, the worst punishment they could receive would grossly pale in comparison to that which would be meted out to adults committing the same crime). When one famous congressman was caught systematically funneling off hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use, he claimed Bipolar Disorder made him do it. Another congressman and New York mayoral hopeful claimed that his ongoing lewd “sexting” behavior – even after having supposedly successfully completed treatment was the result of a sexual addiction so strong it wouldn’t release its grip and not the result of willful misconduct on the part of an entitled, grandiose character with an ego the size of the Empire State Building. Claims that mental illness of some type is really at the root of someone’s willful misbehavior have become so commonplace that many folks have not only lost their outrage that so many make such claims but also have granted these claims a fair degree of plausibility and even legitimacy. This begs the question of whether the concepts of personal responsibility and accountability even exist anymore. Is everyone in fact a victim in one way or another? Is all our behavior merely a product of our biochemistry, our upbringing, our environment, etc.? Are the concepts of right and wrong, crime and punishment simply outdated? Is everyone a victim, including the perpetrators of despicable acts?
Popular attitudes toward the issue of personal responsibility have been shaped at least in part by deep misunderstandings about the nature of mental disorder. Often, when folks hear the term “disorder,” they infer that a genuine disease process is at work that, in some measure, divorces a person from culpability. But in fact only a handful of clinical conditions can potentially render a person not fully responsible for their behavior. For example, individuals suffering from a delusional psychosis can commit acts — even heinous acts — because their brains (often through no fault of their own) are not functioning normally. And in such cases, an affected individual can lack the capacity both to judge right from wrong and to voluntarily conform to appropriate social norms. The question of culpability, however, gets cloudier when the person has induced such a state through the voluntary ingestion of powerful mind-altering drugs. Similarly, folks in the throes of a severe manic episode have been known to engage in impulsive, reckless acts — even harmful acts — that are out-of-character for them. Again, however, the question of culpability becomes a lot murkier if the hyper-elated state that led to the reckless or injurious behavior was brought on by the voluntary ingestion of “recreational” drugs known to induce the state.
The fact that mental health “disorders” are primarily classified by behavioral description (instead of by the disease process thought to underlie the behavior) only further confuses the issues of personal accountability and culpability. When you read the official diagnostic manual, in far too many cases the “illnesses” cataloged are nothing more than a description of the behavior involved with the word “disorder” tacked on at the end. As a result, some criminal defense attorneys have even tried to exculpate their clients by claiming that they “suffer” from a “personality disorder” (ironic, because many theorists conceptualize “personality” by definition as a “preferred” style of human interaction). That’s why a lot of the criticism leveled against the official mental disorders classification systems (which differ radically from the generally accepted methods for classifying other medical conditions) is so well-deserved.
Very few individuals I’ve counseled over the years have suffered from clinical syndromes and other problems that were in no way related to their overall style of coping and character. So, even though I run the risk of overkill, I simply have to assert once more what I have asserted time and time again in my books and online articles: Character is the big issue facing the mental health profession today and has been for some time. Despite the labels most clinicians all-too-readily slap on those seeking or being referred for “help,” character dysfunction often lies at the root of the presenting problems.
Not only has the character crisis being witnessed by the industrialized world over the past several decades reached epidemic proportions, but we have become so desensitized to it (or are in such enormous denial about it) and have grown so accustomed to claims that various mental disorders are really to blame for willful misconduct, that the very notion of personal responsibility for behavior is in jeopardy of becoming extinct. Still, it’s my belief that character is and has always been key to responsible social functioning. The fact that character is so severely in decline (for reasons I outline in my book Character Disturbance) should cause for great alarm. When even a true monster like Ariel Castro can claim victim status on the basis of some vague “sickness,” you know the whole concept of mental disorder relieving personal culpability has reached a reprehensibly absurd limit. And when a self-absorbed, haughty, entitled, spoiled brat like Lindsey Lohan can flash fingernails to a judge trying to afford her psychiatric “help” instead of jail time and still come away with minor sanction, you know the entire system of meting out justice has lost it’s bearings. Even folks who have legitimate clinical conditions that sometimes impair their judgement and self-control, but who are otherwise of good character look and behave a whole lot differently than the nefarious characters we so often read about in the news today who act a fool then claim their illness made them do their dastardly deeds. Also, when the clinical conditions of people of good character cause them to behave in an out-of-character manner, they’re the first to be outraged by it and to try to do something about it (as opposed to being pressured by others or, if subjected to legal sanction, being forced by the courts to get help). Bad actors are just as they appear: deeply flawed characters who need “correction” – not “treatment,” limits and boundaries – not “understanding” (This is one of the main reasons I wrote all three of my books: The Judas Syndrome, In Sheep’s Clothing, and Character Disturbance).
We have it within our power to stem the tide of rampant abdication of personal responsibility. A good beginning would be to put an end to the endless “enabling” we’ve been doing in so many sectors of our society by refusing to accept the all-too-frequently invoked “disorder” excuse and holding all people, except for those rare few who are truly mentally compromised, accountable for their behavior. After all, “therapy” was never meant to be a substitute for a well-deserved consequence.
Many thanks for the boatloads of positive mail I got regarding last Sunday night’s Character Matters program (featuring an interview with my brother, a criminal defense attorney). While a few early moments of the program had technical problems (due to a server outage in the NYC area), I’ve been advised that the podcast and the Youtube reposting of the program have had the dead air time cut out. Because I’m taking the Labor Day weekend off from some much needed R&R, this Sunday night’s program will be a rebroadcast of an earlier program. Still, I hope you’ll tune in.