Childhood Trauma And Psychopathy
What is the nature of the relationship between childhood trauma and psychopathy?
The term ‘psychopath’ is often used by the tabloid press. In fact, the diagnosis of ‘psychopath’ is no longer given – instead, the term ‘anti-social personality disorder’ is generally used.
When the word ‘psychopath’ is employed by the press, it tends to be used for its ‘sensational’ value to refer to a cold-blooded killer who may (or may not) have a diagnosis of mental illness.
It is very important to point out, however, that it is extremely rare for a person who is suffering from mental illness to commit a murder; someone suffering from very acute paranoid schizophrenia may have a delusional belief that others are a great danger to him/her (this might involve, say, terryfying hallucinations) and kill in response to that – I repeat, though, such events are very rare indeed: mentally ill people are far more likely to be a threat to themselves than to others (eg through self-harming, substance abuse or suicidal behaviours).
The word psychopath actually derives from Greek:
psych = mind
pathos = suffering
Someone who is a ‘psychopath’ (ie has been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder) needs to fulfil the following criteria:
– inability to feel guilt or remorse
– lack of empathy
– shallow emotions
– inability to learn from experience in relation to dysfunctional behaviour
Often, psychopaths will possess considerable charisma, intelligence and charm; however, they will also be dishonest, manipulative and bullying, prepared to employ violence in order to achieve their aims.
As ‘psychopaths’ reach middle-age, fewer and fewer of them remain at large in society due to the fact that by this time they are normally incarcerated or dead from causes such as suicide, drug overdose or violent incidents (possibly by provoking a ‘fellow psychopath’ to murder them). However, it has also been suggested that some possess the skills necessary to integrate themselves into society (mainly by having decision making skills which enable this and operating in an context suited to their abilities, for example where cold judgment and ruthlessness are an advantage) and become very, even exceptionally, successful; perhaps it comes as little surprise, then, that they are thought to tend to be statistically over-represented in, for example, politics and in CEO roles (think Monty Burns from The Simpsons, though I’m aware he’s not real. Obviously.).
WHAT KINDS OF CHILDHOODS HAVE ADULT ‘PSYCHOPATHS’ HAD?
Research shows that ‘psychopaths’ tend to be a product of ENVIRONMENT rather than nature – ie they are MADE rather than born. They also tend to have suffered horrendous childhoods either at the hands of their own parent/s or those who were supposed to have been caring for them – perhaps suffering extreme violence or neglect.
Post-mortem studies have revealed that they frequently have underdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for the governing of emotions; IT APPEARS THAT THE SEVERE MALTREATMENT THAT THEY RECEIVED AS CHILDREN IS THE UNDERLYING CAUSE OF THE PHYSICAL UNDERDEVELOPMENT OF THESE VITAL BRAIN REGIONS. It is thought that these brain abnormalities lead to a propensity in the individual to SEEK OUT RISK, DANGER and similar STIMULATION (including violence).
IS THE PSYCHOPATHY TREATABLE?
Whilst there are those who consider the condition to be untreatable, many others, who are professionally involved in its study, are more optimistic. Indeed, some treatment communities have been set up to help those affected by the condition take responsibility for their actions and face up to the harm they have caused. Research is ongoing in order to assess to what degree intervention by mental health services can be effective.
David Hosier, BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).