When irrational acts are committed by rational criminals


In July 2001, Anders Breivik killed 77 people in a series of coordinated attacks in Norway. It started with a car bomb meant to distract the authorities while he started a shooting spree on Utoya Island at a summer camp for young people.

Professor Simon Wessely, a UK psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry at London’s King’s, looked at the crime and the misconceptions surrounding it. He claims that people struggle to comprehend heinous acts by determining that the criminal must be insane. An irrational act cannot be performed by a rational man. Still, with Breivik, everyone who knew him said he was sane. “And when, to everyone’s surprise including my own, the psychiatrists did indeed state that Breivik was suffering from schizophrenia, there was an outcry,” noted Wessely.

Two popular misconceptions were seen in these events: 1) the purpose of psychiatry is to get criminals off and 2) that inexplicable criminal acts must be the product of insanity.

A mental institute is not an easy alternative to prison. Most criminally insane people spend more time in hospital than in prison. The treatment for mental illness can be more strenuous than just doing time. Additionally, the purposefulness and forethought required to execute Breivik’s plan showed a clarity of mind not found with schizophrenia.

“The widespread anger when it seemed that Breivik was going to be sent to hospital rather than prison reminds us that liberal attitudes to mental illness are still often only skin deep,” concluded Wessely.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, The Lancet


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