For many people the word psychopath conjures up images of crazed killers and mass murderers. The fear it evokes is alleviated by believing they mostly exist in books, movies and high security prisons, but psychopathy is a personality disorder and more prevalent in our communities than most people realise.

Unfortunately, the myths and fears that surround the subject of psychopathy cause us to ignore this reality and yet it is a major health problem that needs more public awareness to avoid psychopathic injury, and to provide support and help for people who have unknowingly become psychopathic victims.

It is generally accepted among the world’s leading research authorities that people with a psychopathic disorder make up around one per cent of the general population, and can be found in families, businesses, professions, corporations and political systems. Not all psychopathic individuals are serial killers, in fact, few serial killers are psychopathic, but they are extremely destructive and potentially dangerous if not recognised. The deaths, illnesses and ruined lives they leave in their wake are generally unseen and the financial and social cost of psychopathy to the community is high causing social, mental and physical health problems, community violence, sexual assaults, suicides, homicides, destroying businesses, careers, clogging up our court systems and the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children.

Unfortunately, according to Australian medical sources, there is limited research, training, programs or awareness in Australia to help people deal with psychopathy.

World-renowned American psychologist, professor and researcher of psychopathy Dr David Kosson, is also president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy and president of The Aftermath, Surviving Psychopathy Foundation.

Dr Kosson said the social cost of psychopathy is much greater than what is widely recognised. “When we think about the costs associated with mental health other than psychopathy we commonly think of lost productivity and medical costs. These costs also apply to psychopathy but what is not well documented is that many people with psychopathic traits either do not contribute to the legal economy of their country, or they are not very productive in their jobs. They are more often thinking of ways to improve conditions for themselves or how they can assume a more dominant role in their sector as opposed to what is in the best interest of the company or the country. Psychopathic people are also more likely to be injured due to some of the reckless things they do, which increases their need for health care. There is some recognition of the costs associated with their criminal activity and violent crimes, the demands this makes on the courts, and the cost of incarceration. What is least recognised is the number of people that are seriously hurt by people with psychopathic traits and the costs associated with their care and recovery.”

Another myth that comes with the current stigma and ignorance attached to mental health is that psychopathic people are psychotic (as in illnesses such as schizophrenia or mania), which is marked by delusions, hallucinations, incoherence, and distorted perceptions of reality. “They are entirely different,” Dr Kosson said. “Most people with psychopathic traits are not psychotic.”

The general description of a male or female person with a psychopathic disorder is that they will often have the appearance of being a charming and intelligent person but lack any real feelings or character. They live their lives void of any empathy, accountability, remorse, conscience, guilt or fear. To survive in our communities, they mimic other people’s thoughts and emotions while projecting their own social and emotional deficit onto others and they are very good at it, which makes them difficult to detect, controlling and destructive. Often they will manipulate others into doing their destructive bidding for them, which also makes them difficult to identify.

One of the most influential researchers of psychopathy was American forensic psychologist Dr Hervey Cleckley who in 1941 published a book titled ‘The mask of sanity’. In it, he describes the psychopathic person as outwardly a perfect mimic of a normally functioning person, able to mask or disguise the fundamental lack of internal personality structure, an internal chaos that results in repeatedly purposeful destructive behaviour. Despite the seemingly sincere, intelligent, even charming external presentation, internally the psychopathic person does not have the ability to experience genuine emotions.

Today’s world leading authority on psychopathy is Canadian psychologist Dr Robert Hare who has developed a standard measurement system to reliably identity psychopaths, known as the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) which is now being adopted worldwide as the standard instrument for researchers and clinicians. In 1993, he published his book titled ‘Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us’.

According to medical research, psychopathy is a disorder that currently can’t be cured and generally, people with psychopathy believe they don’t need to be cured.

While more research is helping some mental health professionals at the top of their profession understand psychopathy, the information is not filtering down to professionals on the ground and the training and public awareness needed to help victims affected by associations with psychopathic individuals, particularly vulnerable children, has been largely overlooked.

Victims unknowingly involved with a psychopathic person can suffer an enormous amount of emotional abuse causing anxiety, anger management issues, depression, panic attacks, weight problems, addiction problems, fear, hyper vigilance and sometimes suicide. Some victims claim they felt like they were going crazy, their supportive family and friends disappeared, they were often frightened but didn’t know why and nothing around them made sense.

Other male and female victims, who wish to remain anonymous, described trying to protect their children after separating from psychopathic partners as being a lonely journey through hell. After battling their way through The Family Court, many victims found themselves financially depleted while their children suffered by being manipulated, alienated from their siblings, pets and friends, threatened, terrorised, consistently put in terrifying and life-threatening situations and many being sexually molested.

A problem Dr Kosson said in America, other countries and possibly Australia is that child representatives and perhaps others involved in custody battles do not have the required training or understanding of this personality disorder and when presented with their manipulative traits are often taken in and fooled. “Their job is to act in the best interests of the child but there’s no requirement that gives them a foundation to do that job effectively when psychopathic people are targeting them.”

The devastating aftermath of abuse by a psychopathic individual, harms people psychologically, emotionally, physically, financially, sexually and socially. Many may suffer huge financial losses, post-traumatic stress, flashbacks, intrusive and suicidal thoughts and unresolved grief.

The difficulty for victims is that the professionals and authorities they go to for help are frequently untrained and unaware of the treacherous complexities of psychopathy.

“Then there are also additional obstacles to getting help,” Dr Kosson said. “Friends and family are frequently manipulated and the person that has been victimised can become estranged from them. The family will believe the victim has severe mental health problems they didn’t know about and that their psychopathic partner is doing the best he can. When the victim comes to her family for help saying he is doing these things to me, they see it as more evidence the victim has a problem. The victim may then be faced with ‘now we realise how sick you really are, your partner has already told us about your problem’, so the manipulation can often feed into keeping the victim disempowered.

“Another concept is the issue of traumatic relationships. In our diagnostic system, post-traumatic stress disorder is very much oriented towards people who experience a horrible event and has not been extended to ongoing relationships that are damaging where people start to doubt their own sanity. Sometimes victims have what should be recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder that in many cases doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria, so we need more research on the way in which relationships with people with psychopathic traits impact people so the diagnostics can catch up with what’s going on.

“Ultimately, with more awareness and understanding, policies will be changed to deal more effectively with psychopathic individuals so they don’t make such a mess in therapy, in relationships, in the courts and in the workplace.

“Another example is psychopathic individuals committing elder abuse by insinuating themselves into relationships with people who have dementia or terminal illnesses to get themselves into prominent positions in the estates or in the wills. There is no recognition of this and there’s no screening for symptoms of the personality disorder when people try to enter into these new relationships with our seniors. Our hope is as the awareness increases more people will start to do the research that will give us the information to correct problems with public policy.

“I also think it’s absolutely critical that psychologists, social workers and counsellors learn more about psychopathy so they can help people more effectively.”

Theaanna Horvat is a third year psychology student at the University of New England in New South Wales. She is dedicating her studies to psychopathy awareness in Australia using clinical evidence to address the common misnomer that psychopaths are thought of as only violent serial criminals but can be found in all walks of life, often in positions of authority and in corporate professions where people offer their most trust. She has established the first psychopathy awareness website in Australia providing scientific information about psychopathy, and help and support for victims.

Dr David Kosson is president of The Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Foundation, a non-profit organization providing information and support for victims of psychopathy


By Wendy Morriss

Copyright © 2013 Wendy Morriss: Freelance Journalist. All Rights Reserved