Psychotic. Psychopath. Same thing, right?
Nope. Please don’t mix them up. Especially if you’re a writer and you’re thinking of creating a character with either one of these conditions. Know which is which, peeps! And if you don’t, well, that’s what I’m here for!
As I prepare to explain, please keep in mind that there are entire textbooks written on these subjects, so this is the seriously condensed version:
First, psychotic. This means a person has lost touch with reality. A person experiencing psychosis might have:
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there) or
- Delusions (there are lots of different types, but these are beliefs in something that’s untrue—we will definitely cover this in a future post)
There are lots of different types of psychotic disorders, but schizophrenia is probably the most well known. Basically, being psychotic means a person is going to have a heckuva lot of trouble thinking clearly, making good decisions, completing daily tasks, and responding emotionally and logically to other people.
Oh! Does it mean a person experiencing psychosis is violent? I mean, just look at what we see on television—psychotic people murdering others in fits of bizarre, violent behavior. I believe there have been episodes like this on ER, CSI, other-shows-you-probably-know-but-I-have-not-seen … and yeah, every once in awhile, it does happen in real life (unfortunately, it sounds like that might be what happened here). But MOST people in a psychotic state are harmless, are frightened or paranoid (more on paranoia in a future post), and are more of a danger to themselves than to others.
By the way, IT IS A MYTH that people with mental illnesses, psychotic or not, are more dangerous than other people. Don’t fall for it.
Ah, moving on.
Psychopathy. This is a personality trait that includes a total lack of empathy for others and really amoral behavior (you know, little things like lying, stealing, assaulting, killing, etc.). Often, someone who is psychopathic appears outwardly normal (notice the difference here—a person who is psychotic will often NOT appear normal).
Serial killers are often found to have psychopathic traits. Like Ted Bundy, for example. Look him up. The dude was scarily smooth, had a degree in psychology, and even got involved in politics before it was discovered that he was brutally murdering young women.
Or, more recently, one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, was showing a lot of signs of psychopathy. If you want to read more about that, I highly recommend Columbine, by Dave Cullen. Riveting.
And on TV (and in literature), our favorite psychopath of all … you know who I’m thinking of?
He talks about how he has no real feelings, how he’s rehearsed all these behaviors so he can fool people into thinking he’s normal … he’s most definitely NOT psychotic. He’s totally sane. He knows right from wrong. He understands reality. He just doesn’t feel the same way other people do. It doesn’t hurt him to kill other people. He’s sort of detached about it most of the time. Dexter has most of the characteristics of a psychopath, though he’s been given many habits and traits that make him more sympathetic (trying to stick to “The Code”, for instance).
Now, believe it or not, you can’t really be officially diagnosed as a psychopath. The closest thing in our current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-IV-TR) is antisocial personality disorder. It looks like that may change in the upcoming DSM-V, but more on that another time.
OK, I’m all done. Questions? Other examples?