CAN PSYCHOPATHS BE TREATED?

There’s no cure, but re­search sug­gests psy­chopa­thy can be made more man­age­able – if caught early enough

Focus-Science and Technology - - PSYCHOLOGY -

The tra­di­tional con­sen­sus among psy­chi­a­trists and psy­chol­o­gists has been that psy­chopa­thy is an un­treat­able con­di­tion. Even re­spected men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als have bandied around terms like ‘just evil’ to de­scribe psy­cho­pathic crim­i­nals. But while there’s cer­tainly no sign of a cure on the hori­zon, in re­cent years some evidence has emerged to sug­gest that young psychopaths, in par­tic­u­lar, can at least be taught to man­age their con­di­tion.

In 2001, a study car­ried out by Michael Cald­well and Gre­gory Van Ry­broek at the Men­dota Ju­ve­nile Treat­ment Cen­ter in Wis­con­sin, USA, found that young of­fend­ers di­ag­nosed with psy­cho­pathic traits were far less likely to re­of­fend if given ‘de­com­pres­sion therapy’. This in­volves mov­ing slowly from a puni­tive model of care to one of pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, in which youths were re­warded for more ‘nor­mal’ be­hav­iour. Since then, this treat­ment is said to have re­duced rates of re­of­fend­ing by a third.

More re­cently in 2012, David Bern­stein, a pro­fes­sor of foren­sic psy­chother­apy at the Uni­ver­sity of Maas­tricht, be­gan us­ing an ap­proach that he calls ‘schema therapy’, which fo­cuses on en­cour­ag­ing pa­tients to reac­cess the emo­tional and em­pa­thetic re­sponses he be­lieves have of­ten, in psychopaths, be­come ‘locked away’ due to trauma or abuse dur­ing child­hood. It’s still early days for a treat­ment of this kind, but the ini­tial re­sults are promis­ing, sug­gest­ing that of­fend­ers with psy­cho­pathic ten­den­cies are less likely to re­of­fend if they’ve un­der­gone schema therapy. And un­like de­com­pres­sion therapy, schema therapy seems to work for adults as well as for young of­fend­ers.

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