THE BLOG
01/22/2016 07:16 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Is Affluenza Real?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As prosecutors await 18-year-old Ethan Couch's return from Mexico in order to conduct a hearing to consider whether the Texas teen -- who killed four pedestrians and injured two others while driving drunk in 2013 -- violated the terms of his probation by leaving the U.S. after a video surfaced in which he appeared to be drinking, the media faithfully continues to refer to Couch, in headlines and elsewhere, as the "affluenza" teen. "Affluenza" -- it's the cute, clever term a defense expert coined during Couch's 2013 trial to describe the not-so-cute disorder that had resulted from Couch's privileged upbringing; a disorder that, the defense argued, had coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility and clouded his sense of right and wrong.

Scoff all you want: It may sound ridiculous, but the "affluenza" defense worked. Couch managed to avoid jail time and was instead sentenced to 10 years probation (which included a prohibition on consuming alcohol) and some time in a rehab of his parents' choosing. At the time of the teen's December 2013 sentencing and in news reports since, most have argued that the defense, and the sentencing, were an outrage; that "affluenza" is not a disorder, but a result of bad parenting, for which there's no excuse. And that, in fact, "affluenza" is not real.

There's certainly some questionable parenting going on in Ethan Couch's life, not only then but also now: Couch traveled to Mexico with his mother, who, in the days before Couch disappeared last month, reportedly withdrew $30,000 and called her husband to say he would never see her or their son again. Tanya Couch was eventually apprehended in Mexico and sent back to the United States, where she was charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon. Now, Ethan's lawyers are questioning whether the 18-year-old fled to Mexico voluntarily or whether he was taken, by his mother or by someone else, against his will.

Still: Bad parenting notwithstanding, who's to say Ethan Couch doesn't also suffer from some mental impairment? Nature, we now know, isn't the only cause of mental illness. In fact, genetics and environmental distress -- including bad parenting or a detrimental home life -- can work together to produce mental illness. And, well, the symptoms used to describe and "diagnose" affluenza are entirely real: low self-esteem, sense of entitlement, anxiety, impulse control issues.

A number of legitimate psychological studies suggest that "affluenza" may not be so far-fetched, and that the very issues listed above are indeed often higher among kids of certain privilege.

So let's say that Couch's symptoms were a result of bad parenting; just as with any other mental disorder, how they got there matters less than the fact they are there. Affluenza may not be an excuse, but it is an explanation. If Ethan Couch was truly raised without a sense of right or wrong, how would he be expected to behave in a way that's socially acceptable?

That's not to say there should be total leeway for children, or young adults, who do the wrong thing simply because they did not fully understand the implications of that thing. Other forms of mental illness are not get-out-of-jail-free cards, and neither is this one. The mentally ill who break the law are required to face consequences, even if their punishment is different from that handed to someone of sound mind and body; their mental illness being a factor in their behavior, but not a justification for it. And so it should be for Ethan Couch. If "affluenza" is indeed what caused him to get behind the wheel with a blood alcohol count three times the legal limit for adults, resulting in the deaths of four people, he deserves to face consequences. But he also deserves to get some help.

Instead, Ethan Couch was sent back into the care of the very people -- his parents -- who allegedly caused him to act without regard to consequence in the first place.

So here's the truth about "affluenza." If it's real, then our treatment of it needs to be real, too. Otherwise, Couch's privileged upbringing could very well serve to absolve him indefinitely from all bad behaviors. Because if Ethan Couch seriously suffered from a mental or emotional inability to know right from wrong at 16, unless he's gotten help, there's no way to believe that he knows it now -- or ever will.