This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
“I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research!” by Haley Korff
“I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do do your research!” Every Sherlock fan knows this line from the unwillingly lovable detective portrayed in the BBC series by Benedict Cumberbatch. But have you done your research? What is the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths? Are these just terms the media has created to describe certain aspects of people who suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)? We’ve seen the crime shows that depict people with antisocial behaviors as psychopaths and criminals, but that can only be true to a certain degree. To know what is true and what is the creation of fiction or a depiction of ill-informed media, we must do exactly what Mr. Holmes says – our research.
Upon seeing the word psychopath, the first word that often comes to mind for people tends not to be “mentally ill”, but maybe “murderer”, “serial killer”, or “criminal”. While people diagnosed with ASPD do commit a higher number of crimes than one without ASPD, this does not mean that all people with ASPD are criminals. Even more so, not all people with ASPD seek to harm other people. As such, psychopathy and sociopathy have been generally used as terms to describe Antisocial Personality Disorder in both a more colloquial and slightly more negative manner.
So, is there a difference between these three labels? Let’s talk definitions. A psychopath is defined as “a person suffering from a chronic mental disorder characterized by abnormal or violent social behavior.” A sociopath is defined as “a person suffering from a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and lack of conscience.” The difference between these two seems to be the violence involved in psychopathy and the lack of planning inherent in sociopathy. It seems that sociopathy is very similar, but does not involve violence, rather, just the chronic indifference to others and their needs and feelings…at least based on these definitions. So while, due to the impulsivity, “sociopath” may be a more accurate description of ASPD, the use of the words psychopath and sociopath may be words that are better suited to describe the most noticeable and socially unacceptable facets of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The problem may lie in how society as a whole is exposed to this terminology and the manner in which it is disseminated.
There are countless facets of the media and how the public collects information, from radio to news stations to television shows to newspapers and magazines, and the list goes on. How many times has the media used the phrase “psychotic killer” or a similar label to name those who have committed terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and similar acts of violence? In fact, roughly 23% of films that depict a mental illness include a representation of or a main character with ASPD. The point of this is to garner viewership, for more people to tune in, by playing off of the morbid curiosity of the public. Rather than using the media’s power to raise awareness, they feed off of this and gain viewership. With the power to influence the entire population, the media’s reaction to acts of crime and violence is inflammatory and incites fear in which the so-called bad guy must be a ‘psychopath.’ This assumption shines not only a negative light on Antisocial Personality Disorder, but on mental illness as a whole.
Anyone who has watched the news in the past six years probably knows who James Holmes, Adam Lanza, or Jared Lee Loughner are: young men who have committed mass shootings. These are people that have committed horrible, heinous acts of violence that have captured national attention. If you pay close attention, you may notice the first thing reporters say is, “it is unclear whether or not the perpetrator suffers from some kind of mental illness”. The public assumption is that anyone who commits a terrible crime must be mentally ill – a psychopath. The truth is that only roughly 7% of crimes committed by people with a diagnosable mental illness are even related to the illness itself. Assuming that anyone that commits a heinous crime is mentally ill is irresponsible and only adds to the stigma of being diagnosed with an illness. This doesn’t even take into account that only 3.3% of the population, at maximum, has Antisocial Personality Disorder, and not all of them demonstrate the blatantly socially unacceptable traits referred to as sociopathy and psychopathy (some even suggest that many highly successful people are, in fact, able to be diagnosed with ASPD). When we take this into account, it seems as though the news is feeding off of the public’s bias and fear of mental illness and exacerbating the problem.
There is another side to the attention mental illness gets that may be more harmful than the bias that it’s dangerous, and that is the morbid curiosity that is perpetuated by television shows that, in a way, glorify psychopathy and make it into a seemingly untouchable, only-seen-on-TV affliction. Televisions shows like Criminal Minds and other crime related shows depict the most gruesome acts that are often times due to the criminal being “a psychopath.” While some information in shows like these is correct and may lend to the awareness of mental illness, there is obviously some dramatization of the situation for television purposes, and this causes an odd contrast of information between educating the public about people’s behavior and exaggerating the information in a way that causes it to be misleading.
In conclusion, back to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is a consulting detective who happens to fancy himself as a “high functioning sociopath.” This mayallow him to be more logical and better at his job, but the depiction of his issues with substance abuse and his ability to manipulate people in his interactions with others is highly indicative of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The media may highlight the dramatic and often violent aspects of Antisocial Personality Disorder and use inflammatory words like “psychopath,” but a tendency toward violence is only a portion of the symptomology of those with APD. It is important to remember that it is our job to distinguish what exists for entertainment, who the real people are, and that sometimes those lines may be blurred.