Mad or Bad

1 January 2017

Are murderers suffering from mental illness or simply evil? The question of whether murderers are suffering from psychiatric illness or are just simply evil is a debate that runs rife throughout not only the psychological community, but society as a whole. Murders are rare events in Australia; nevertheless they do occur. The media coverage of such events can be extensive and often dramatized, without addressing the potential underlying processes such as mental health and/or intoxicating influences that may contribute to such antisocial behaviour.

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Presented will be a focus on those underlying factors such as mental health and substance abuse, psychopathy will also be critically examined to draw the conclusion that murderers behaviour cannot be excluded as bad even if a mental health issue is present at the time of offence. The question of whether murderers are suffering from psychiatric illness or are just simply evil is a debate that runs rife throughout not only the psychological community, but society as a whole.

Murders are rare events in Australia; nevertheless they do occur. The media coverage of such events can be extensive and often dramatized, without addressing the potential underlying processes such as mental health and/or intoxicating influences that may contribute to such antisocial behaviour. To understand and determine whether or not murderers are mad or just bad, the defining terms of “mental illness” and “evil” are imperative.

The psychological definition of mental illness is “any of various disorders in which a person’s thoughts, emotions, or behaviour are so abnormal as to cause suffering to himself, herself, or other people” (Oxford dictionary. 2012) and on the other hand evil is defined as the “quality or an instance of being morally wrong; causing harm or injury” (Oxford dictionary. 2012). It is vital that we differentiate these terms as often the media portrayal of murderers is only based on the evil quality without considering other possible underlying influences that may provide further explanations for behaviour.

In arguing the differentiation of the mad from the bad, this paper will discuss homicide in Australia and how it differs, address influences such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and provide an overview of psychopathy to murder. Homicide in Australia is a rare event, and is among the most serious of all crimes, unfortunately however, it does occur. The term ‘homicide’ refers to a person killed (unlawfully); a murder is the willful killing of a person either intentionally or with reckless indifference to life (Hayes & Prenzler, 2009).

In 2007-08 there were 260 homicide incidents in Australia involving the deaths of 273 victims. In trend terms however, this rate at which homicide occurs remains at an historical low. Within Australia, most homicides were domestic homicides involving one or more victims, who shared a family or domestic relationship with the offender, furthermore intimate partner homicides comprised the largest proportion of domestic homicides at 60%; leaving stranger homicide relatively low at 12%.

The vast majority of victims of homicide died from stab wounds than from any other single cause of death. Secondly, victims died as a result of a gunshot wound. Although the vast majority of victims died as a result of stab wounds for domestic and acquaintance homicides, for stranger homicides the most frequently recorded cause of death was beatings at 53% (Virueda & Payne, 2010). The social context of most homicides suggests they are likely to occur between people who are generally from similar backgrounds and socio-economic groups (Hayes & Prenzler, 2009).

Importantly, the location of a homicide is largely influenced by the type of homicide, with domestic homicides accounting for the largest proportion, majority occurred within a residential location most often the victims’ home; however occasionally in the offenders. In order to understand the factors or situations that are likely to precipitate a homicide event, the motives behind such behaviour must be acknowledged, although assigning a single reason or motive may be difficult because the reasons or lack thereof may be varied and complicated.

Relating alcohol, drugs and psychiatric illness to homicide is key to understanding potential situational causes of murder and whether the offender is mad or bad. Given that domestic homicides were the largest category of homicide, the 2007-08 data shows that domestic arguments were the most commonly recorded motive. The second most frequently recorded motive was alcohol related arguments which was identified as having preceded two in five homicides in 2007-08. Another intoxicating influence which could lead to explain such behaviour was illicit drug use; found in one in five homicide ncidents in the reported year alone (Virueda & Payne, 2010).

For the continued differentiation of the mad from the bad it is crucial to compare motives, only seven homicides occurred as a result of the offender suffering from mental health which is a considerable decrease compared to domestic argument or alcohol related offences. Although homicides caused due to the offender suffering from mental health issues is not the most predominant cause, is this due to the homicide being explained primarily due to a form of substance abuse therefore categorizing the offence as an alcohol related argument. Bennett et al. 2011) argues that patients with schizophrenia are signi? cantly more likely than those in the general community to commit homicide offences.

Although based on the Homicide in Australia: 2007–08 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report, this has been disproved based on statistical findings. Interestingly, 39. 5% of the homicide offenders with schizophrenia had a known substance abuse (Bennett et al. , 2011). The question, however, arises as to whether the link between schizophrenia and having committed homicide is in fact explained primarily by substance abuse and whether previous criminality also plays a role (Mullen, 2000).

Soyka et al. (1992) puts forward the idea that alcohol or drug abuse could cause schizophrenia like psychosis which would be a major underlying process to offenders’ behaviour. The use of illicit substances by people with schizophrenia is markedly in excess of rates among the general population (Jablensky et al. , 2000). Cannabis is the most commonly used drug, followed by amphetamines. (REF)

There is little doubt that illicit substances such as cannabis and amphetamines can cause acute psychotic symptoms, it is also clear that some people are more vulnerable to the effects of drugs such as cannabis (Arseneault et al. 2004) In terms of people with an established psychotic illness, illicit substances tend to result in a worsening of psychotic symptoms. This could potentially prove to be a major underlying factor to offenders who are suffering from mental health issues. A more contentious issue to consider when relating psychiatric illness to murder is whether illicit drug use can actually cause schizophrenia. There is considerable evidence that the use of methamphetamine can induce a picture that is very similar to that of positive symptoms of schizophrenia; in most cases, the symptoms clear once the drug taking ceases (Fergusson et al. 2005).

This provides a substantial flaw to deciding whether a murder is suffering from mental illness or is simply evil as the mental illness may only be triggered due to intoxicating influences such as drug and alcohol use. The major limitation when relating psychiatric illness and substance abuse to homicide offenders are that there are many variables which are not strongly scientifically supported, as well as the diagnosis of the offenders mental health being diagnosed before or after the event has occurred. Psychopathy is a very in-depth and controversial disorder that is vital to comprehend when related to acts of murder.

Many argue that psychopaths are not morally responsible because they lack some of the essential capacities for morality, they are considered by some to be both mad and bad however the insanity defense is not applicable to psychopaths. Psychopaths do not meet the insanity criteria as legal and moral responsibility stand as separate categories. Maibom (2008) explains that psychopaths do have impairments in a range of abilities but not to an extent that we should expect them to be unable to acquire any deep moral understanding, it may however be that they lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongness of their actions.

When linking psychopathy to acts of murder and deciphering the argument of mad or bad, a major factor must be taken into consideration; murders by psychopaths compared to insanity cases, are not committed while in the grips of a hallucination or delusion (Maibom. ,2008). With psychopathy being considered a moral disorder and the relevant action of the circumstances under which it is performed, it again appears to be a bad action more than a mad action.

Duff (1977) states that “a psychopath cannot understand the nature and quality of his actions, or the lives and interests of those around him; he cannot control his actions in the light of any rational concerns or values, not because his impulses are strictly irresistible, but because he has no conception of rational values as providing reasons for action. ” (p. 199). It is argued by Maibom (2008) that the disorder that psychopaths experience and the sorts of murders they perpetrate are better examples of badness rather than madness.

This is supported by his factor of psychopathic murder being preponderantly instrumental in nature, and by the offender seeking to gain from the offence in some way or other. On the contrary, recent research by a behavioural neuroscientist, Dr Kiehl has presented an attempt to understand a psychopaths’ brain functions. In a study, Dr Kiehl focused on a male offender charged with the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, he performed two types of analysis on the offenders brain; focusing on the density and its function. Kiehls’ findings showed very low levels of density in the para-limbic system of the offenders’ brain.

This scientifically supports the definition of a psychopath and their inability to process emotion to a normal degree. The major limitation of psychopathy is that there is minimal scientific research or empirical findings to clearly state whether they are in fact mad or bad, although based on the material that has been reviewed, the murders psychopaths perpetrate are better examples of bad acts than of madness. Based on all the reviewed literature discussed above, it is likely that murderers commit offences that are better examples of badness opposed to madness.

As statistically found, the highest amount homicides were those of domestic and alcohol related arguments, with motives for the causation of such behaviour, many of which were not committed while the offender was delusional or having a hallucination. This provides reason to believe offenders were aware of their actions and the unlawful aspect of their behaviour however, committed the offence. Major limitations proved throughout this essay, as murders are often situational and need to be thoroughly investigated in their own context.

Further research needs to be conducted as mental illness and substance abuse often overlap which is a potential flaw when categorizing offenders. In conclusion, murderers’ behaviour cannot be excluded as bad even if a mental health issue is present at the time of offence, the mental health aspect simply provides a potential reason for, and is used when prosecuting the offender.

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