I Am Not a Psychopath
Explaining the misconception of psychosis and its relation to violence.
Oftentimes when I decide to divulge to people the nature of my mental illness, I get asked if I have ever been violent. This is not only demeaning, it is ignorant and inconsiderate. I do not expect everyone to have a perfect idea of what schizophrenia or psychosis is, but if somebody is making themself vulnerable by revealing sensitive information to you, it is spectacularly rude to ask or outright imply that their illness must be precedent to violence. It is necessary that society as a whole is able to understand that having a mental illness does not by default mean that a person is going to be a violent criminal. It is necessary to understand what schizophrenia and psychosis is, and to differentiate it from psychopathy.
Recently, I read an article on Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, who most believe was a textbook psychopath. In the article, in order to build suspense, it talked about how Bundy was a “psychotic murderer”. There is absolutely no evidence that Ted Bundy suffered from psychosis at all. In fact, those who have Antisocial Personality Disorder are fully aware and conscious of their actions and do not normally have any breaks with reality. When the article uses the word “psychotic”, they most likely want to embellish the fact that Bundy was completely depraved. But it is insulting and insensitive that they would use psychosis as something to describe him when most people with psychosis are not disgusting serial killers.
Psychosis, arguably the main staple of the symptoms of schizophrenia, is a word that carries the heaviest weight of stigma, fooling people into immediately picturing a criminal with violent tendencies because of the negative connotations of the word “psycho”. Generally, in today’s culture if someone is describing a person who is extremely angry, they use the word psychotic as a descriptor, and this could not be more misleading.
Psychosis in its most general definition is any break with reality. Hallucinations and delusions are usually the most common manifestations of psychosis. When I am experiencing hallucinations, I hear voices in my head even though I have not consciously or purposely thought of any of the things they say. In fact, I am always terrified of what they do say, and I have no control over them when I am in a bad mental state. In addition to hallucinations, delusions are defined as irrational beliefs that are still believed firmly even though evidence argues against them. When I experience delusions, I often believe that the CIA is following me and wants to either capture me or kill me because of a microchip that has been implanted in me. This is a subcategory of delusions known as a delusion of persecution.
Notice that none of these psychotic experiences have anything to do with violent behavior and have never influenced me greatly enough to the point where I attack anyone physically or verbally. It is worth noting though that psychosis, if left untreated, can indeed lead to violence. But much of the time, those with untreated psychosis who lash out are often also under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. That is why it is so important that those who suffer from any mental illness whatsoever ask for help and seek treatment. But even though the media tends to only cover negative stories of people with psychotic illnesses, the truth is that these people are more often in danger themselves rather than endangering others.
Psychopathy on the alternate hand, is a term normally used to refer to those who have been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, or ASPD. The word “psychopath” isn’t normally used by most professionals in the psychiatric community, but there are those who do believe it is the most extreme subcategory of ASPD, although psychopathy itself is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Psychopaths are noted to be very charming, manipulative, deceitful, arrogant, and aggressive. Studies have also shown that they lack empathy and do not feel or process emotions or understand morality the same way that most other people do. There are some with ASPD who do not ever act on their aggression at all, but it is commonly known that there is a considerable increase in the risk for violent behavior with those who are diagnosed with it.
With my illness, there are symptoms other than psychosis that I struggle with every day. I do have a bit of a flat affect, meaning I am not very expressive with my emotions. This may give people the notion that I am not feeling anything at all but believe me, I am, and deeply. I also am not a very empathic person. I struggle with trying to see things from another person’s perspective, and I do not easily grasp concepts that require me to imagine another person’s emotions or thought patterns. I also get angry sometimes. Who doesn’t?
The only similarity between psychopaths and those who are psychotic is the small word “psycho”. I am not advocating that we change the dictionary, but that we make the effort to understand it more deeply. No mental illness in its name alone denotes violence, and to believe otherwise is to be enslaved to the grossly inaccurate media depictions of mental illness that we see too often. So yes, I am psychotic and no, I have never hurt anyone, and I don’t plan to.