Psychopathy: Is It In You?

By Kevin Brandenberg & J.P. Malette

When one considers crime and its relationship to society, psychopathic behavior remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing conditions of the human mind. Psychopathy describes individuals who, put simply, don’t have a conscience and thus commit actions, often times illegal, without any moral consideration.

Gatorade, the popular sports drink, uses its slogan “Is it in you?” to describe the competitive drive in athletes, which is presumably enhanced by drinking their product. Just like the Gatorade slogan suggests about athletes, is pyschopathy a condition simply found in some and not in others? Or are there other factors that go into this serious mental condition? This post will explore the mental condition behind psychopathic behavior, how it differs from the normal human condition, and how it relates to the treatment of crime in society.

Psychopathy: What Is It?

While not always associated with crime, psychopathic behavior often comes up as a reason for and a cause of both small and horrendous crimes. A recent review indicates psychopathy is an accurate indicator of a person’s susceptibility to criminal behavior and violence.

“Although psychopaths make up only 4% of the total population, they represent about 50% of serial rapists, as well as a significant proportion of persistent wife batterers. Overall, psychopaths are twice as likely to reoffend as other criminals, and three times as likely to commit violent acts again after being convicted.” (Copley 2008)

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Public Release of the DSM-5 Draft

The draft of the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, was released this week. This guide to the diagnosis of mental and behavioral health problems will shape the delivery of psychological, psychiatric, and social care for years to come.

You can access the entire draft here at the American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Development Website. There the APA writes about the comment policy:

The draft disorders and disorder criteria that have been proposed by the DSM-5 Work Groups can be found on these pages. Use the links below to read about proposed changes to the disorders that interest you. Please note that the proposed criteria listed here are not final. These are initial drafts of the recommendations that have been made to date by the DSM-5 Work Groups. Viewers will be able to submit comments until April 20, 2010. After that time, this site will be available for viewing only.

It is interesting to note that the APA included a press release announcing that the DSM-5 Development Process Includes Emphasis on Gender and Cultural Sensitivity.

Actual proposed changes are set up in an interesting way. The opening tab is the proposed revision, but there is also are rationale, severity, and DSM-IV tabs. So it does provide more information than one might think.

So, as one major example, Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, has an extensive draft proposal for the DSM-5. Here the rationale isn’t that great, since it largely focuses on single episodes of depression. On the severity side, it’s clear what the APA group is thinking about in terms of differential ratings. And it’s easy to compare the DSM-5 with the DSM-IV criteria.

Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks includes some extensive commentary, and a wealth of links, on the DSM-5 Draft in the piece The Draft of the New ‘Psychiatric Bible’ Is Published. He opens by saying:

It’s a masterpiece of compromise – intended to be largely backwardly compatible, so most psychiatrists could just get on diagnosing the few major mental illnesses that all clinicians recognise in the same way they always did, with some extra features if you’re an advanced user.

One of the most striking extra features is the addition of dimensions. These are essentially mini questionnaire-like ratings that allow the extent of a condition to be numerically rated, rather than just relying on a ‘you have it or you do not’ categorical diagnosis.

John Grohol, writing over at Psych Central, also provides an initial overview of the main changes in the DSM-V and then provides a review that features the good, the bad and the ugly.

If you’re looking for just the critical, the Psychiatric Times has a piece Opening Pandora’s Box: The 19 Worst Suggestions For DSM-5. Dr. Allen Frances, who chaired the DSM-IV Task Force, identifies two areas that are quite worrisome (and predictable) for a critical medical anthropologist:

(1) Dramatically higher rates of mental disorder, including “millions of newly misidentified false positive ‘patients’ [and] massive overtreatment with medications that are unnecessary, expensive, and often quite harmful”

(2) Unforeseen consequences, where DSM5 options often have an “insensitivity to possible misuse in forensic settings. Work Group members cannot be expected to anticipate the many ways lawyers will try to twist their good intentions.”

You can explore the legal aspects more over at In the News.

For specific diagnoses, Dr. Petra has particularly good coverage on the proposed changes in sexual disorders. Liz Spikol looks at the diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder with a critical eye.

For more reading, Furious Seasons has some good initial thoughts on the DSM-5. Additional coverage can be found at the NY Times and New Scientist.

Cross-Cultural Psychiatry: A Special Report from Psychiatric Times


Psychiatric Times issues periodic special reports, and the latest one features a wealth of articles and ideas on cross-cultural psychiatry.

Ronald Wintrob, chair of the World Psychiatric Association–Transcultural Psychiatry Section, writes the Introduction to Cross-Cultural Psychiatry for this special report. He notes how migration has increased over the past 20 years, and that 12.86% of the US population are immigrants. Psychiatrists have put increasing effort into engaging these populations.

One of the most practical applications of cultural psychiatry to clinical practice in all fields of medicine is the open-ended questioning of patients and their families about their personal and family background characteristics. This includes identifying features of race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic class, relevant immigration history, experiences of acculturative stress, and personal and family aspirations. A discussion of these background characteristics can lead naturally to the clinician’s exploration of the presenting clinical symptoms and history. Knowledge of the patient’s background will increase rapport with patients and families and aid the process of collecting a more reliable history. In addition, it will improve the likelihood of treatment adherence. This process has been described as “cultural case formulation.”

Three main articles comprise the special issue:

Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health by Simon Dein, senior lecturer of anthropology and medicine at University College London. This piece provides an in-depth examination of what is currently known about the relationships between religion and mental health, and also includes a handy set of four check points that summarize the main themes of the article.

Cultural Considerations in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, by Toby Measham, Jaswant Guzder, Cécile Rousseau, and Lucie Nadeau, all in the department of psychiatry at McGill, which presents a series of guidelines and suggestions for how to handle cross-cultural issues in practice with children and adolescents

Cultural and Ethnic Issues in Psychopharmacology, by Keh-Ming Lin, professor emeritus in psychiatry at UCLA. This piece goes from the placebo effect to genetic variation, and argues that “cultural and ethnic influences… should be regarded as central in determining the success of treatment interventions.”

Under the whole category of cross-cultural psychiatry at Psychiatric Times, you can also find other articles, including this one by J. David Kinzie on A Model for Treating Refugees Traumatized by Violence.

Link to the Introduction to the Special Report on Cross-Cultural Psychiatry.

Exporting American mental illness

The New York Times Magazine has a great discussion of the effects of the exportation of American ideas about mental illness, titled appropriately, The Americanization of Mental Illness by Ethan Watters, based on his forthcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, coming out this month from Free Press. The article is quite good, offering some intriguing cases, such as the rise of virulent, American-style anorexia nervosa in Hong Kong, the effect of possession beliefs on communities’ reactions to schizophrenia, and how the narrative of mental illness as ‘brain disease’ might actually lead to great stigma as it spreads and replaces local understandings. The article is well worth a read, and I’m looking forward to the book.

graphic by Alex Trochut, NYTimes

The ethnographic record is full of conditions that didn’t make it into the most recent edition of the DSM — amok, nervios, koro, zar — you can check out Wikipedia or some other source on ‘culture bound syndromes,’ such as Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes in Psychiatric Times, to get a fuller discussion of some of these conditions. The Psychiatric Times piece suggests that there are at least 200 culture-bound syndromes.

One thing I really liked about the New York Times Magazine article, however (and by extension, Watters’ book, I suspect), is that the discussion of ‘culture-bound syndromes’ usually tends to treat other people’s syndromes as ‘culture-bound,’ Western psychological illnesses as not ‘culture-bound.’ Watters’ work points out that Western mental illness is both itself culture-bound and that persuading people to believe in Western-style mental illness can affect the way that psychic disorders manifest.

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PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury: Trauma Inside Out

by Drew Matott and Drew Cameron

by Drew Matott and Drew Cameron

By Zoë H. Wool

Jake was fond of saying that even though he had become dumber, he wasn’t quite dumb enough. He knew that the improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq had mangled his body, brain and self.

Jake (a pseudonym) lost 30 IQ points due to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from that IED blast. According to the military, he was still smart enough to function and hold down a job, so they didn’t plan to include TBI in his disability rating.

He fought them on this, just as he fought them on the decision not to amputate his leg. After countless surgeries and rehabilitation techniques, his leg was almost useless, allowing him maybe 30 minutes of use before it started rebelling against its reconstructed form. The pain that caused was excruciating; he simply couldn’t use it more.

Eventually Jake won his battle to lose his leg. It was the best thing that happened to him during the year I got to know him while doing my dissertation fieldwork at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (yes, that Walter Reed).

Dealing with, or writing about, TBI is rarely as clear as an amputation. The same is true of TBI’s nearly constant companion, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). TBI and PTSD are not injuries that you can see, unlike a lost leg. Despite the high numbers of TBI and PTSD cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, the relationship of these conditions to more obvious forms of combat trauma remains a fraught one: Witness the debate about PTSD and the Purple Heart.

Most people think that the Purple Heart, that most iconic of military honors, is awarded to American military members injured in combat. As with most issues military, it is not quite that simple.

In 2008, after months of consultation, the decision was made not to award the Purple Heart to those suffering from PTSD because, in part, the medal “recognizes those individuals wounded to a degree that requires treatment by a medical officer, in action with the enemy or as the result of enemy action where the intended effect of a specific enemy action is to kill or injure the service member.” PTSD doesn’t count.

Though the decision was officially framed in rather bureaucratic terms, the debate which surrounded it raises much deeper issues about the nature of trauma. Thinking through these issues has led me to think about the Cartesian split between the (internal) mind and the (external) body and the nature of trauma inside and out.

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Daphne Merkin: A Journey through Darkness

Daphne Merkin

It is a sparkling day in mid-June, the sun out in full force, the sky a limpid blue. I am lying on my back on the grass, listening to the intermittent chirping of nearby birds; my eyes are closed, the better to savor the warmth on my face. As I soak up the rays I think about summers past, the squawking of seagulls on the beach and walking along the water with my daughter, picking out enticing seashells, arguing over their various merits. My mind floats away into a space where chronology doesn’t count…

So opens Daphne Merkin’s recounting of her life with severe depression. A Journey through Darkness is the feature article in this week’s New York Times Magazine. On that sparkling day in mid-June, Daphne was on a “fresh air” break in The Patients’ Park & Garden, the all-concrete highlight of her latest clinic.

Merkin recounts her life, an intractable life, in this moving essay. She mixes in recounting her latest stay in a clinic with reflections on depression and how this illness has shaped her life in such fundamental ways. Here are two pieces that spoke to me.
Daphne Merkin 2

This is the worst part of being at the mercy of your own mind, especially when that mind lists toward the despondent at the first sign of gray: the fact that there is no way out of the reality of being you, a person who is forever noticing the grime on the bricks, the flaws in the friends — the sadness that runs under the skin of things, like blood, beginning as a trickle and ending up as a hemorrhage, staining everything. It is a sadness that no one seems to want to talk about in public, at cocktail-party sorts of places, not even in this Age of Indiscretion.

–//–

This was enraging in and of itself — the fact that severe depression, much as it might be treated as an illness, didn’t send out clear signals for others to pick up on; it did its deadly dismantling work under cover of normalcy. The psychological pain was agonizing, but there was no way of proving it, no bleeding wounds to point to. How much simpler it would be all around if you could put your mind in a cast, like a broken ankle, and elicit murmurings of sympathy from other people instead of skepticism.

Link to A Journey through Darkness

The Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology

fapaThe Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology (FAPA) is a new organization founded by the anthropologist and social worker Rebecca Lester and the psychiatrist Davinder Hayreh.

The Foundation “promotes the use of ethnographic research and mixed-methods approaches to improve understandings and treatments of mental illness, broadly defined. FAPA facilitates collaboration among scholars and practitioners who wish to integrate clinical work with ethnographic research and advocacy initiatives related to culture and mental health.”

FAPA also offers reduced-fee psychotherapy services to residents in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. To find out more, check out FAPA’s description of its clinical services and approach.

Rebecca Lester is a professor of anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis. You can read about her treatment philosophy. For researchers, Rebecca has put together a great list of books in psychiatric anthropology.

And here’s Davinder Hayreh’s LinkedIn profile. He is presently nearing the finish of his residency in psychiatry at Barnes-Jewish Hosptial in Saint Louis.

For more information, you can contact them at office @ psychanthro.org [remove spaces].