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mental health mondays :: does it take two to tango with psychosis?

taken from mother jones
well, of course it doesn't necessitate two people, but can psychosis infect another person, like cerebral herpes, where the disease of one person spreads to the other?

according to popular psychology, yes it can. the phenomena of the folie à deux, or shared psychosis, is a real thing, whereby one "dominant" person is able to project their psychosis or delusions in such a way that a second person begins to believe them. it is described as an incredibly rare occurrence, perhaps largely because it comes to light mostly in criminal cases, where one participant in a crime is identified as the 'dominant' personality, who 'infects' another [or several others] with their aberrant world view. for instance, a parent would be in a position to transmit their psychosis to a child.

many people reading this might have immediately thought of the 'manson murders' of 1969 as an example of a shared psychosis, however, legally, it wasn't. manson was tried alongside three accomplices, all three of whom were convicted and sentenced to life in prison as adults responsible for their own actions. so technically speaking, that means that the jury felt that those individuals were capable of murder on their own, regardless of manson's influence. yes, manson may have provided the catalyst, but each of the jurors was convinced that the three women on trial with manson were sufficiently homicidal in their own right that they were aware of the wrongness of their actions and proceeded of their own free will.

canada boasts [?] one of the most infamous examples of possible shared psychosis in legal history. in 1994, karla homolka was convicted of assisting her then husband paul bernardo [aka paul teale] in the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of two ontario teens, as well as the rape and accidental murder of her own younger sister, tammy. the case became notorious largely because karla was able to broker a plea bargain before videotapes of some of their activities came to light. as a result, karla homolka was sentenced as an accomplice to murder to eleven years in prison, as opposed to the much stiffer penalties she would have faced had she been tried as an active participant in her husband's criminal activities. debate has raged ever since as to whether she was a willing partner [like the manson girls] or a victim of bernardo's who went along with him out of fear for her own life.

doctors have described homolka as a psychiatric anomaly, in that she appears to have given in completely to her former husband's criminal inclinations, but was able to remove herself just as completely from his influence once they were separated. whether or not one believes that she truly did "recover", the facts would seem to indicate that she has lived her life since her release from prison in 2005 without incident. she apparently lives under a new name with her husband and three children in the caribbean. so whatever insanity compelled her to participate in the murders of three teenaged girls, one of whom was her baby sister seems to have passed.

these cases beg the question: is the problem truly the shared psychosis, or does the "share-ee" need to have deep-seated psychiatric problems of their own in order to be lured into the self-contained belief system of a true delusional psychotic? the manson collaborators' verdict says they do. homolka's doctors say no.

i was thinking of this today as i read some of the heart-breaking and terrifying coverage from mother jones about the couple accused of killing three people in las vegas this week. i refer to it as both heart-breaking and terrifying because mother jones has pieced together statements that show jerad miller [according to his story] had his life destroyed because he was convicted of growing and selling marijuana. in a time where most progressive governments have started to back off marijuana laws, it's easy to forget that a conviction for sale of marijuana still carries significant consequences. his finacée and later wife, amanda woodruff, appears to have supported him in his troubles and agreed that the restrictions placed on the two of them following his conviction were draconian. the story is heart-breaking because the origins of their suffering seem so unfair, terrifying because it shows how slender a space their is between justified resentment and homicidal rage.

so herein lies the question: was amanda woodruff drawn into jerad miller's psychotic bubble, where law enforcement officers were the agents of evil and the two of them were brave freedom fighters? or was there already something in her brain that inclined her on the path she eventually took? or possibly, did the psychosis start with her and through continuous reinforcement, spread to jerad?

we'll likely never know, since amanda shot her husband and then herself following their murderous spree. [although, to my mind, her role in their own murders does cause me to wonder if the psychosis wasn't something that started from her, rather than her more vocal partner. that's an amateur's guess, though.] and to go along with the tragedy of the killings committed by these two, there is the adjunct blow that psychologists have been denied the chance to investigate one of the most troubling questions in their field: is psychosis contagious and if so, under what circumstances?

p.s. :: america, much though i appreciate your continuing support of "mental health mondays" in the form of an almost constant stream of mass murderers to analyze, i truly think that you need to take some steps to curb the homicidal rage that seems to lurk in your heart. while it's true that we here in canada had a disturbingly similar incident this week, history indicates that mass murders here tend to affect change; to whit: there has already been an inquiry called to review the circumstances of the shootings in moncton, because when these things happen here, we want someone to take the time to figure out why and how such an incident could have been avoided. in your country, we're lucky if a mass murder is still in the news a week after it's occurred. i'm serious, america. put down the guns and make your way to a psychiatrist's sofa. you need this.

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