Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Evidence" that does stand up in court

Lately, I have noticed how often the DSM label is used in court in an attempt to either exonerate the person from assuming full responsibility for the crime of which they are accused or else to win sympathy from the court against the person with the label. In the past I have agreed with the general insanity defence, but am not at all convinced that parsing the insanity defence down to the specific "disorder" is a wise idea. In fact, the more I see this happening, the less I am convinced about the insanity defence. I see this being used more and more as an "out" for people who are not at all criminally insane or as a vehicle to convict the person you have a grievance against. Both sides are smart enough to know that the DSM carries the weight of "expert opinion."

Since the more esoteric labels weren't in existence much before the 1990s when pharma cemented the idea of the diseased brain in the public consciousness, it is axiomatic that their use in the courtroom has skyrocketed.

Last week-end's Financial Times has an absolutely pathetic piece of journalism on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Since the average reader of the Financial Times is supposedly a London investment banker, I feel this article was written more to titillate than to inform. The article begins with an anecdote about an enraged husband who threatens his wife with a gun when she decides to leave him. He backs off when she calls her father and later denied threatening her and the charges were dropped. At the divorce proceedings "a social services report diagnosed Rob with narcissistic personality disorder." Why am I not surprised that the party seeking the divorce will try to pathologize the spouse's behavior through "expert" testimony. The DSM is their friend in court.

The FT articles goes on at length about NFP as if it were a clinical disease (classified as a cluster B or "dramatic" disorder, as opposed to a cluster A "odd" disorder (paranoid and schizoid) and cluster C "anxious" disorders such as dependent disorders and OCD). It claims that NPD disorder is "diagnosed" when it it really apparent that there is no diagnosis, only "opinion." The article demonstrates that even though "there is no laboratory test, no genetic predisposition, no specific types of people more susceptible than others," a non-existent disease or disorder such as this will still stand up in a court of law. In my opinion, the social services report in the divorce case is tantamount to "hearsay." Actually, much of the FT article struck me as hearsay evidence. We are supposed to believe the nasty things that someone else says about a husband, parent without our actually knowing them ourselves.

The author of the article writes while keeping a straight face "The disorder, formerly known as megalomania, affects 1 per cent of the population and up to 16 percent of the clinical population. It is not easily discernible to the untrained eye, partly because a degree of self-love is essentially healthy . . . . " The article claims that this disorder is found frequently in the higher reaches of politics, finance and medicine, and, with no basis, claims that there is no cure!

Should this fuzzy labelling of a disorder that works well for many really have clout in a court of law? Should law abiding people who carry the label of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder object to their label being bandied about in a court of law to excuse someone else's behavior? If these are phony diseases, as I firmly believe, then their presence should be struck from the court room, or certainly not carry the weight of "expert evidence." Sensationalistic or lurid court cases where schizophrenia and other so-called disorders are invoked, condemn the vast majority of people with these labels who would no more kill someone, drive drunk or steal than the next person. They are stigmatized with the larger public courtesy of the DSM being allowed in the court of law.

"Expert evidence" in these cases claims to justify  that there is no other motivation for the behavior beyond the "disorder."


  1. IMO, the most important task of the juridical system ought to be to hold people responsible for their actions. People who commit crimes are usually more or less unconscious about the fact that they are responsible for all of their actions. If they're labelled or not. The system, the juridical in co-operation with the penitentiary one, should ask why -- and "mental illness" is not a cause, but a circular argument to escape having to look for the real cause -- and help people take responsibility. With the DSM being "evidence" in the court room, the system does the opposite. And it works both ways, yes.

    BTW, self-love isn't the same as being in love with oneself, the latter of which characterizing narcissism. Actually self-love is about the opposite of being in love with oneself. Huge blunder, FT!

  2. I agree that the labelling means that you don't have to look any further for the root of the problem. Laying the courtroom aside, "mental illness" is a way of bringing attentio to your hidden trauma.

  3. The method described for diagnosing NPD is no different than the approach taken for diagnosing bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. There is no greater leigtimacy to these classifications than those that are deemed flakier.

    The fact of the matter is each of these coping mechanisms is a response to events that cannot be rationalized within our human awareness and they occur within the context of our socialization, and most often during our formative years.

    Marian's observation is significant. In most cases there is an absence of self love occurring with the individual who is afflicted by a neurotic or psychotic response to cope.


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