Mental Disorders and Accountability: Is Everyone a Victim?

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Increasingly, society is accepting the claim of illness as an excuse for lack of personal responsibility, and culprits are seeking therapy in place of punishment.

By now everyone has heard about the outrageous statements made by the notorious child rapist Ariel Castro during his arraignment in court a few weeks ago. Castro is the man who satisfied his lust for teenage girls by carefully stalking and then abducting three young women, holding them hostage for years, and regularly assaulting them. Still, he declared that it’s wrong for others to see him as a “monster” or predator. Instead, he claimed folks should understand that he is “sick,” the victim of a severe pornography addiction, someone to be pitied instead of reviled, and in greater need of treatment than punishment (Castro even had the audacity to claim that his victims were not as innocent as they cast themselves and that most of the sex he had with them during their captivity was “consensual!”).

A few days after the Castro hearing, defense attorneys for three drug-dealing teenage thugs caught on their school bus surveillance camera beating a classmate within an inch of his life made their own statements. Attempting to negotiate a plea in court, they asked the judge to see their clients not as young hoodlums out to “teach a lesson” to a classmate who “snitched” on them to school authorities, but rather as young men with “anger management” issues, who needed therapy as opposed to harsh punishment (even though, as juveniles, the worst punishment they could receive would grossly pale in comparison to that which would be meted out to adults committing the same crime).

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Stories similar to these abound in the daily news. From the congressman caught systematically funneling off hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use, then claiming Bipolar Disorder made him do it, to the congressman turned mayoral candidate who claimed that his ongoing lewd behavior (even after “treatment”!) was the result of a sexual addiction (see also “The End of Political Sex Scandals — Or Something Else?”), claims that mental disorders of some sort are really to blame for willful misbehavior have become commonplace; so much so, that most folks not only have lost their outrage about such claims, but also have increasingly granted these claims a fair degree of plausibility and even legitimacy. But these scenarios beg the question of whether the concepts of personal responsibility and accountability even exist anymore. Is everyone in fact a victim in one way or another? Is all our behavior merely a product of our biochemistry, our upbringing, our environment, etc.? Do we really have as much control over our actions as some used to believe? Are the concepts of right and wrong, crime and punishment simply outdated?

Some attitudes toward the issue of personal responsibility have been shaped at least in part by deep misunderstandings about the nature of mental disorder. Often, when folks hear the term “disorder,” they infer that a genuine disease process is at work that, in some measure, divorces a person from culpability. But in fact only a handful of clinical conditions can potentially render a person not fully responsible for their behavior. For example, individuals suffering from a delusional psychosis can commit acts — even heinous acts — because their brains (often through no fault of their own) are not functioning normally. And in such cases, an affected individual can lack the capacity both to judge right from wrong, and to voluntarily conform to appropriate social norms. The question of culpability, however, gets quite a bit dicier when a person induces such a state through the voluntary ingestion of powerful mind-altering drugs. Similarly, folks in the throes of a severe manic episode have been known to engage in impulsive, reckless acts — even harmful acts — that are out-of-character for them. Again, however, the question of culpability becomes a lot more cloudy if the hyper-elated state that led to the reckless or injurious behavior was brought on by the voluntary ingestion of “recreational” drugs known to induce the state.

The fact that mental health “disorders” are primarily classified by behavioral description (instead of by the disease process thought to underlie the behavior) only further confuses the issues of personal accountability and culpability. As a result, some criminal defense attorneys have even tried to exculpate their clients by claiming that they “suffer” from a “personality disorder” (ironic, because many theorists conceptualize “personality” by definition as a “preferred” style of human interaction). That’s why a lot of the criticism leveled against the official mental disorders classification systems (which differ radically from the generally accepted methods for classifying other medical conditions) is so well-deserved.

I might sound like a broken record to some of you readers (perhaps an outdated metaphor for some of you folks who don’t remember how “nicks” in a shellac or vinyl record could cause the phonograph tone arm to repeat sections of a song over and over again), but even though I run the risk of overkill, I simply have to assert this once again: not only has the character crisis being witnessed by the industrialized world over the past several decades reached epidemic proportions, but we have become so desensitized to it (or are in such enormous denial about it) and have grown so accustomed to claims that various mental disorders are really to blame for willful misconduct, that the very notion of personal responsibility for behavior is in jeopardy of becoming extinct. Still, it’s my belief that character is and has always been key to responsible social functioning. And the fact that it’s on the decline, for a whole host of reasons, many of which I outline in my book Character Disturbance, is cause for great alarm. When even a “monster” like Ariel Castro can claim victim status on the basis of some vague “sickness,” then you know the whole concept of mental disorder relieving personal culpability has reached a reprehensibly absurd limit. Even folks who have legitimate clinical conditions that sometimes impair their judgement and self-control, but who are otherwise of good character would look a whole lot different from the nefarious characters we so often read about in the news today. Also, when the clinical conditions of people of good character cause them to behave in an out-of-character manner, they’re the first to be outraged by it and do something about it (as opposed to doing nothing until their misbehavior comes to light and they’re pressured into getting “treatment”).

As a society, we have it within our power to stem the tide of rampant abdication of personal responsibility. A good beginning would be to put an end to the endless “enabling” we’ve been doing, by refusing to accept the all-too-frequently invoked “disorder” excuse and holding all people, except for those rare few who are truly mentally compromised, accountable for their behavior. After all, “therapy” was never meant to be a substitute for a well-earned consequence.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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