THE BLOG
11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Psychopaths, Not Psychotics

In a year of mass killings, Guy Heinze, Jr., who dialed 911 to report the slaying of seven family members and a friend on August 29, was charged on September 4 with eight counts of first-degree murder in Brunswick, Ga.

Though nothing good can come out of this tragedy, we can at least be thankful that heavyweight pundits and public officials did not characterize Heinze as mentally ill, the typical response in the aftermath of one of these rampages.

That was an improvement over the errors many have made in describing recent mass murderers like George Sodini, Richard Poplawski and Seung-Hui Cho.

In August, Sodini killed three women at a gym in the Pittsburgh area, following which Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said, according to the AP, "It's a case where someone who clearly shouldn't have had a firearm because of mental problems had a firearm. This guy had severe mental problems. He had a deep abiding hatred of women."

Rendell presumably based his assessment on posts on a blog registered in Sodini's name. In his cyber diary, Sodini, who took his own life during the shooting, not only decried his inability to get dates but also planned the lethal attack for roughly a year.

Rendell may have been using the term "mental problems" in a vernacular sense, but the problem is that by using such a term loosely we perpetuate the notion that the mentally ill are violent.

Rendell wasn't the only one to make this mistake. ABC News quoted forensic psychologist Naftali Berrill as saying, in reference to Sodini's blog, "These are the ramblings of a likely psychotic." ABC then featured "likely psychotic" in its Web-based headline.

Sodini's premeditated violence and his reported lack of expression in committing the murders, to say nothing of his nihilistic proclamation in his blog, "Death Lives," are classic indications of a psychopath, not a psychotic.

Those who are psychotic, a neutral term that essentially means "divorced from reality," rarely become violent with others except when they misread a situation due to their delusional state.

I was once diagnosed a schizophrenic, and I have never been a threat to anyone but myself. When I was admitted to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, now known as the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, in 1999, three burly orderlies came into the room to make sure that I took my medication. Though the orderlies were not there to hurt me, I can imagine that another person in my situation might have felt the need to defend himself. Had such an act of violence taken place, however, it would not have been premeditated.

This subtlety has been lost on some journalists and TV psychologists.

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly had to be taught the difference between psychosis and psychopathy after the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people on campus.

Cho's premeditation, remorselessness and lack of affect in his now-infamous video clearly demonstrated that he was a psychopath. No one should have ever confused him for a psychotic.

Earlier this year, during a spate of mass murders, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann referred more than once to Richard Poplawski, who is accused of killing three police officers in Pittsburgh in a planned shootout, as "the psychotic."

Again, Olbermann, like Rendell, may not have been aware of the clinical meaning of "psychotic," but in misusing the word he unintentionally maligned a group of people, who share six letters with but couldn't be more different from psychopaths.

Unlike psychotics, psychopaths live by an ethos of hatred, sadism and violence. Sodini railed against young women; Cho vilified "rich kids" and Christians; James von Brunn, who allegedly shot an officer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, blamed Jews and blacks for the world's ills.

Poplawski associated with white supremacists, bashed Jews in online rants, reportedly got into fistfights with neighbors and had a number of domestic disputes with his mother.

Just as Sodini showed no emotion in the shooting at the gym and Cho showed none in his video, Poplawski, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "maintained a cold demeanor as he answered" the questions of the police, "occasionally yawning."

That is not to say that psychopaths can't also be psychotic. In believing that God was speaking to him and told him to found a church, sex offender Phillip Garrido, who was recently arrested for abducting Jaycee Lee Dugard and holding her hostage for 18 years, has shown signs of being delusional or divorced from reality. But kidnapping a young woman for 18 years, and using drugs and handcuffs to rape other women in the past, would require an extraordinary degree of calculation and planning, the kind associated with psychopathy.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible on these matters, does not include psychopathy as a disorder; and the vast majority of psychiatrists do not consider it a form of mental illness.

Lost in all of this is the fact that those who are truly mentally ill commit somewhere in the range of 3 to 4% of violent crime.

A Department of Justice report determined that those "with a history of mental illness," but who do not suffer from drug or alcohol disorders, committed only 4.3% of homicides in the U.S. in 1988. A survey published by the National Institute of Mental Health noted that individuals with "severe and persistent mental illness," but no substance abuse problems, account for no more than 3% of violent crime!

And many studies have shown that when individuals with serious mental illness take their medication, they are no more likely to commit violent crime than those who are not mentally ill.

Perhaps, one day, we will recognize that people like Sodini, Poplawski and Cho are not representative of any community, except the community of psychopaths.