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How should we treat psychopaths?

ClayTheScribeClayTheScribe Veteran
edited November 2011 in Buddhism Today
What does modern Buddhism have to say about how we should treat psycho/sociopaths?


  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Compassionately, but at arm's length and with caution.
  • I believe we should do more research into how best to help such people. There was a guy in Russia doing this research, starting with teenagers who were showing dangerous traits like animal abuse, but his funding dried up. Helping psychopaths is not what most people want to do - and it is not politically expedient for governments to provide the funding either. Plus, people don't want to be stigmatised by being labelled as potential psychopaths, so the subjects are invariably convicted psychopaths who nobody wants to help because they've done terrible things.

    Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen has recently produced a book about psychopathy, as he is doing research in Cambridge, UK. But the book was 20 GBP, so I couldn't afford to read all of it (I've been in the bookshop taking sneaky peaks and so far, all I can say is "Interesting...").

  • SattvaPaulSattvaPaul South Wales, UK Veteran
    I watched an interesting bbc programme about psychopaths a while ago. The researchers were looking for a specific gene that predisposes someone to be a psychopath. But the thing that stuck in my mind was when they found that many people in the upper strata of corporate hierarchy tend to fit the definition of a psychopath.

  • Psycopath is a pretty ambiguous term, and considered pejorative. People afflicted with antisocial personality disorder (like most personality disorders) are not well understood in terms of cause, but there is correlational data to environmental influences, such as abuse.

    One of my psych teachers described the antisocial as one who has the biologic disposition of fearlessness, with unusual amygdala processing. If they do not have a healthy upbringing with moral direction and boundries, there is little impetus for adhering to any kind of normal social morality. However, if given proper motivation, they can channel their biology into a socially acceptable outlet, such as working high steel, race car driver, jet pilot etc. If they have a lot of experience with abuse or social outcasting, then they move toward 'psychopath' behaviors.

    I don't know if what was taught is exactly true, because as I said the causes and conditions are not well known, but it keeps with the Buddha's teaching on impermanence. Their behaviors are conditioned, and so they deserve all the compassion we would offer to any of our sick. If you want to get the chills, there is a documentary on youtube on The Iceman. It gives a pretty vibrant account, in a one on one interview with an antisocial hitman.
  • Compassionately, but at arm's length and with caution.
    Why at arm's length and with caution? We should treat those with mental illness just like we do anyone else. "Arm's length" implies that there is something to fear from them. There isn't. They're just people. That's a very old, and pardon me for saying it, very ignorant attitude. Clearly you don't have a friend or family member with mental illness.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Because while we may be able to perceive matters in a fashion that may be labelled common sense or normal, they do not always have the capacity to reason in a similar way to others, therefore they are unpredictable and could be volatile.
    Caution means marking one's words and actions skilfully.
    At arm's length means we can enable, but we cannot heal, and should not try.
    Such attempts could be misinterpreted, and rejected in many ways, some not always pleasant.....
  • Can an anti-social person who has committed heinous acts overcome their psychopathic tendencies through Buddhist practice and transcend them? How do we integrate such persons into our communities with compassion while being cautious? I would imagine that fearlessness would be useful if one decided to become a Buddhist. My understanding is that The Buddha himself once killed a man on a ship he was serving on before he became enlightened?
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think 'Merica! Veteran
    My understanding is that The Buddha himself once killed a man on a ship he was serving on before he became enlightened?
    According to the Jataka Tales in a previous life, and that was done out of the intention to save the rest of the crew not for some personal gain like a psychopath may do.

    Of course having compassion for others doesn't simply mean wishing that they have an easy life filled with luxury and pleasure. We also look at a persons mental suffering and the negative mental states that cause them. So to have compassion for a psychopath means that we wish for them to be free of the negative mental states that cause them and others harm, and not a wish that they win a free vacation to the Bahamas or something.
  • There isn't. They're just people. That's a very old, and pardon me for saying it, very ignorant attitude. Clearly you don't have a friend or family member with mental illness.

    respectfully, i think you don't understand what a psychopath is. if you did you would not think that keeping them at arms length is ignorant.
    Psychopathy (/saɪˈkɒpəθi/[1][2]) is a mental disorder characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. Psychopaths are highly prone to antisocial behavior and abusive treatment of others, and are very disproportionately responsible for violent crime. Though lacking empathy and emotional depth, they often manage to pass themselves off as average individuals by feigning emotions and lying about their past.
    [Deleted User]
  • My understanding is that The Buddha himself once killed a man on a ship he was serving on before he became enlightened?
    i believe this was a jataka tail... a story about the Buddhas previous lives used to illustrate a point.
  • Okay me and all my children have mental illness, and i agree with 'at arms length'. It takes very skillfull means to determine the safety of an individual. Depression, most bipolar, anxiety, and so forth, great give us a hug. But from extensive personal experience many people with honest mental illness also have the same capacity as the rest of us for manipulation of others. However it is important to balance that with the awareness that although society is scared of many people with mentail and developmental issues generally the ill person is more at risk from the larger society than the society being at risk from them.

    Some of them, Narcissists (NPD), borderline personality disorder, and psychopaths, well I can have my compassion from a distance. There is no 'what doesn't kill you will make you stonger' from these close experiences. It either makes you smarter so you can see them coming a mile away from then on or you just spend years recovering.

    I know this sounds harsh, I have me and my 3 kids who still deal with the aftereffects of NPD father and grandparents on top of their own illness. We all need to take responsibility to the extent we are able, and my children and I need to take care of our own illness, but not take on what we can't heal from without. And boundaries! Whew, don't mess with those, I have now forbidden grandpa to be around my girls as long as he lives. It is warranted. And then I go to schools and work like crazy to keep our chalenged kids in programs.

    As a side note, before we truly had secure facilities for the closest to humane treatment we can manage many cultures made the decision to put others to death. If the society was in danger and the person could not just be sent out I am not sure what else could be done. Now we separate the dangerous from the dangerous and ill. The ones that are ill would quickly be in danger in regular criminal faciliites.
  • @Federica Some anti-socials are exceedingly charming as well as cunning, and will screw you over with a smile, without ever getting volatile. So not all of them fit in the psycho killer box. How would you possibly know to keep someone as disarming as that at arm's length? Just sayin'.

  • Compassionately, but at arm's length and with caution.
    Could you be a little more specific please.

    Thank You

  • @Federica Some anti-socials are exceedingly charming as well as cunning, and will screw you over with a smile, without ever getting volatile. So not all of them fit in the psycho killer box. How would you possibly know to keep someone as disarming as that at arm's length? Just sayin'.

    From my experience with the charm of antisocial personality disorder, it is only necessary to remain alert through our normal mindful practices (meditation, trusting our basic sanity etc.) Authenticity and inauthenticity are part of the information that arises as we percieve the "charm."

    If we are rooted into our wisdom and sanity, then we see what is there, not what others wish us to see. :) Still, compassion is a good response to either...
  • Be mindful when associating or interacting with them. What else is there to do?
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Compassionately, but at arm's length and with caution.
    Could you be a little more specific please.

    Thank You
    If you read my 2nd post, I clarified therein.

    And yes, I have three family members with mental disorders. @Mountains, so I have some experience.
    My comments (as I explained) were not through being unsympathetic.

    One has to practice a measure of self-preservation around those who are mentally ill. As @Hubris points out, those with a mental illness are not all raving, wide-eyed self-evident individuals. Therefore, in any situation one has to look to one's own personal physical and emotional well-being, in order to be most effective.
    How on earth can we be Wisely compassionate otherwise?
  • Even the practice of metta starts with the wish for oneself to be free from harm. That means to remove oneself from harmful persons or situations but not actually wishing harm to others as a result of aversion. Based on scientific evidence no one is to be blamed for the condition of psychopathy so no one should be "punished". They are what they are.
  • We all want to feel warm and fuzzy towards others, but in the case of psychopaths, we need to realize that we're not qualified to help them skilfully. Their minds are unpredictable, and they can interpret in a twisted way sincere attempts to help or be kind. I've seen well-meaning people have their efforts seriously backfire on them. It's best to leave such people to the experts, unless medication has resolved the mental imbalances.
  • Please make a distinction between axis I and axis II mental disorders. Those with schizophrenia and bipolar have thought and mood disorders rather than social problems such as violence and antisocial etc..

    Schizophrenics have a lower rate of violence than the general population in every category except self violence, which they are much higher.
  • Yes I do not want people to see another as a diagnoses more than a person, espeically with my own diagnoses, just be aware that some folks with these illnesses are outside of our ability to directly help.
  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited November 2011
    Bear in mind that the membership knows nothing of "Axis 1 and Axis II" disorders, Jeffrey. That's not a realistic request. Everyone here is clearly very compassionately oriented.

    It's not even necessarily about violence. When I was managing a student dormitory, one student committed suicide. It turned out she had had symptoms of schizophrenia, but hadn't gotten help. A student in her dorm had tried to be kind and friendly towards her, but the ill student had told her parents by phone that an evil demon was after her, and gave the kind student's name. So when the parents arrived to sort out what had happened. we had to straighten all that out, and convince the parents that the friendly student couldn't harm a fly, and was only trying to be a friend to someone who was clearly troubled. Otherwise the compassionate person may have been implicated in some way. The parents were really out to get her, initially.

    Anyway, Federica is a mental health professional, I think we can trust her judgment and advice on this score. This is not to stigmatize anyone, this is just to say that caution is warranted in certain types of cases, and we're unqualified to deal with some people skilfully. We should be mindful of our own limitations.

    I second AHeerdt.
  • Having dealt with mental illness for the past 15 years and having dealt with other people with mental illness, sometimes caution is warranted. That does not mean you are not compassionate, but you also have to be compassionate and protecting of yourself that not only do you protect your energy field and your health from certain ill people, but keep yourself from being needlessly harmed. I have always viewed psychopaths, or people with anti-social behavior, to have a mental illness and I try to view them compassionately as sick people. But you also have to realize that because of their illness they may act in certain ways that could hurt you or put you in danger. The larger question I was getting at is how should we as a society treat these people? So far it seems like we lock them up or kill them. I would like us to work on treating these people, but like one poster said, there's not much funding to be found for that because we still react emotionally to these people.
  • I live about 2 blocks from the notorious street in Denver (colfax) and there are issues here. Between where I live and where I work there isn't a lot of romantic notions about people who struggle or are homeless or mentally ill. My kids have seen a few times someone obviously not okay running down the street talking to unseen people or reacting to them. And we had a young lady stay with us a few months until she was so happy that her boyfriend who was in jail had remembered to get her a Christmas present and it was a pittbull. Um yeah, that sentence should speak for itself, besides the fact she sat on my couch once obviously strung out on something, and so i sent her back to her mother. (bipolar I diagnoses).

    However i was really proud my son told me that the man who has the corner across from his school seems really nice. They say hi to each other and once my son gave him a little money. Now when we drive by in the car he waves to my son. He is just a real person, doesn't give us 'the vibe' (my son is very empathic like me) and needs some help.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited November 2011
    The difference Dakini between a schizophrenic and a sociopath is that the schizophrenic is out of touch with reality, whereas the sociopath *wants* to hurt people. There is no medication that can help a sociopathic person whereas medication can help bipolar, depressed, anxiety disabled, and schizophrenic people. Those four are all interrelated genetically and this is shown in co-morbidity (tendancy to have more than one of these at same time).

    I think it would be a good idea to become educated regarding mental illness. Have you seen the autism awareness campaign? That is a very good campaign and people are more aware and understanding of autism. There are as many schizophrenic people as autistic. Probably one out of every one hundred or two hundred is schizophrenic. At least that was given out in my pharmacy graduate school when we were learning about the therapeutics of mentally ill patients.
  • Actually they're both out of touch with reality. And it's not necessarily that the sociopath wants to hurt people, he/she just doesn't have any sense of right or wrong or empathy to know how it would feel to hurt someone. If they were both truly in touch with reality, all of reality, they would probably transcend their disorders.
  • SattvaPaulSattvaPaul South Wales, UK Veteran
    We're all on the samsara spectrum :)
  • I understand the frustration in working with people who see demons. I really do. In my family my brother is very anxious, my mother is depressed, and I am schizophrenic. We have opened our hearts to eachother and communicated well and thus we get along just fine.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited November 2011
    Thats a true analysis Clay. Still nonetheless I was trying to make a point of differences. You treat each type of case differently just as you treat a tornado, flood, and plague differently.

    Schiz versus socio is like a difference between Luna and Malfoy. There is humanity in both, but there is a difference in manifestation.
  • True enough. You definitely can not treat all mentally ill people as just "crazy." Each disorder manifests itself differently in each person.
  • Now that Clay has clarified the OP a little, I will just say that the way the US is dealing with such people is scandalous. We had another thread recently discussing how, due to budget cuts and changes in the mental health care system introduced by Reagan, many of the mentally ill are homeless and don't have care. Even some of those fortunate to have a home don't have the economic resources to get care. I don't know if we here are qualified to say whether giving them institutionalized care is best, or whether the system of letting them live independently and get community care is best. Either way, more funding is needed to meet their basic needs. I would guess that the more severe cases would need round-the-clock care. It's a very thorny matter.

    What is this business of balancing a state or national budget by throwing people out on the street? What kind of economic policy is that?! :rant:
  • Jeffrey, that's wonderful how your family has made an effort to get along, and has succeeded. All families could learn from that. Thanks for sharing.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited November 2011
    Yes it is expensive. My medication costs 140 dollars a month and that is with insurance. And also I'd like to point out that many mentally ill are employed and financially solvent. There are university professors with bipolar and schizophrenic professionals as well. If I had gotten on the medication I am on now 6 years ago I would probably be earning over easily over 50 K a year either as a pharmacist or rnd chemist. I scored in the 99th percentile on the PCAT admissions test to pharmacy school at the same time that I was mentally ill just happened to be in remission the 2 months preping and taking the test. I completed two years of pharmacy school even without my medication working correctly by alternating Es with As on tests. There are famous actors with these illnesses. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression. Freddie Mercury of Queen suffered from Bipolar.

    famous faces of schizophrenia
  • edited November 2011
    Lest there be any misunderstanding, I understood the discussion to be about the unmedicated mentally ill. I think we know our members well enough to know that medication is a godsend and allows people to live full, rewarding, and productive lives.

    @Jeffrey :bowdown:
  • there's not much funding to be found for that because we still react emotionally to these people.
    That, and there's not much funding for anything, now. Public funding has been severely undermined over the decades. We're really lucky Social Security wasn't privatized.

  • I have not read this thread fully but I recall reading a report/documentary on psychopaths and one psychiatrist's bid to cure them. There was so called alternate therapy involved etc but they resolved that in the end, there was no genuine transformation because charm/potential to manipulate remained some of the marked characteristics of persons with said disorder.
  • This is what I've heard, too. Narcissistic and sociopathic clients are the most difficult to treat, because they can be so manipulative. You'd think that the therapists would be equipped to see through those manipulations, and recognize the signs of this or that pathology, but not all therapists are that sharp, and I guess some of these patients are very effective, having learned to manipulate people for pure survival. It's like the saying goes, the patient has to want to change.
  • SattvaPaulSattvaPaul South Wales, UK Veteran
    edited November 2011
    I'd think that a good therapist would be able to spot it pretty quickly, especially the (lack of) emotion and empaty on the part of the client. They would be able to sense the client's energetic quality, so to speak. Depends a bit on the therapy methods I suppose.
  • I have to say (from my experience and research) that it is strongly recommended that you do NOT do couples counseling for issues with a narcissist.
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    Oh lord, yeah...it's just 'me, me, me....'!

    And that wasn't intended to be funny, either.
  • I had a HUGe long post about my experiences with both great and not so great counselors and my ex husband (not to be confused with boiyfriend who is still awesome). One counselor and a few in the legal profession were able to see through him, and my lawyer said he was one of the most narcissistic people he had ever met, and lawyer attract these folks as clients and to the law profession!

    In any case I got out, healed a lot, and only sometimes still see the scars. I don't have to deal with that side of the family really but over the summer after my ex got remarried I called about his father. I think I am one pretty tough cookie because I made it clear that his father was not to be around the girls ever again, as long as he lives. On tam's last brithday her stepgrandmother came and not grandpa. Doing that with genearions of narcisissist is 'pretty bomb' as my kids would say.

    How does this relate to buddhism, well with NPD and I am assuming some others, the person is very skilled at seeing you better than you see yourself and using personal ego issues to flatter and get into your personal space. So you are the most amazing person! waay better than anyone else makes you feel. So you don't need those others who think you are great but still human. Then once they are gone the switch flips and you are the worst, so bad that you can never even attempt to recover. But the great high feeling is so addictive that of course you want it back. And it does come back at times, followed by the lows that just make you want to disappear, stop breathing, anything to make it stop. But you ar the object and therefore necessary to the process, they cannot do it without you. for all their power you can survive without them much better than they can survive without you, but that does not mean recovery is overnight.

    So dealing with your self, practicing self compassion, seeing reality for what it is, knowing you have buddha nature but probably not today in action, those things are all antidotes over time to this and other mental illnesses where the outsiders are more likely to seek help than the person with the disease.

    Federica, does that sound about right?
  • edited November 2011
    As with any type of criminal, I still think the focus should be on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment and vengeance. I read recently that psychopathy is caused by a malfunction of the para-limbic system of the brain, cutting off emotion and empathy. If they figure out how to fix the para-limbic system, psychopathy can actually be treated.

    Notice how your anger at psychopaths dissipates somewhat upon learning the cause of psychopathy? How can psychopaths be blamed for their para-limbic system malfunctioning? This is why blame and vengeance is not the way to treat psychopaths (or any criminal). The desire for vengeance is predicated on an ignorance of cause, which leads to a belief in 'free will', and therefore to blame. Think about it: If you learn that someone hacked five people to death with a shovel, you are inclined to treat them as a monster. But if you learn their behavior was caused by a tumor in their brain, you don't hold them responsible, but you do nevertheless want to treat the tumor, or if you can't, you at least want to prevent them from doing further harm. If free will is an illusion, and everything has causes, then ALL criminals and criminal behavior should be treated like the individual with the tumor: they should be treated as individuals who did not choose their own genes or upbringing, and so are not truly 'responsible', and therefore they should be treated with a regard for prevention and rehabilitation, not a free-will-based desire for punishment and vengeance.
  • edited November 2011
    P.S.- As you might have guessed, I believe that 'free will' is not only not necessary for morality, I believe it is positively harmful to morality.
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