Psychopathy is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, as a psychiatric condition. However, people who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy often have significant mental health challenges. Individuals with psychopathic personalities are considered dishonest, unremorseful, fake, egotistical, and often violent. A large percentage of incarcerated adults are assumed to exhibit these same symptoms. Studies on this segment of the population have focused on identifying factors that could predict psychopathy, including childhood traumas, comorbid psychological conditions, and drug and alcohol use. Research has shown that children who have difficulty with emotional regulation may be at increased risk for violent or antisocial behavior in adulthood.
To further examine the relationship between childhood events, substance misuse, and psychopathy, Eva R. Kimonis of the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida recently conducted a study on 373 incarcerated male teens ranging in age from 14 to 17 years old. The sample was primarily ethnically diverse, which is a representation of actual incarcerated youth. The teens had been convicted of violent crimes, including assault, rape, and murder. Kimonis assessed the levels of alcohol and drug use and the childhood histories of first-time offenders and compared them to secondary offenders and found that secondary offenders had significantly higher rates of comorbidity.
Specifically, Kimonis discovered that secondary offenders had higher levels of alcohol use in the 6 months before their conviction than first-time offenders. Additionally, secondary offenders reported more traumatic events, such as childhood neglect, abuse, or maltreatment, than those incarcerated for the first time. These levels were the highest in those with the most extreme psychopathic symptoms. For these individuals, alcohol use was a common thread. Kimonis believes that teens who experience difficulties in early childhood may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the stress and pain of the traumas. This is especially evident in disadvantaged and minority youth. These results support this theory, as those with the highest levels of psychopathy were also the teens who had histories of childhood maltreatment and alcohol misuse. Kimonis added, “Interventions may focus on identifying more positive strategies for coping with negative emotional states that stem from mental health problems related to trauma history.”
Kimonis, E. R., Tatar, J. R., II, Cauffman, E. (2012). Substance-related disorders among juvenile offenders: What role do psychopathic traits play? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028047
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