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  • Clarifying the Relationship Between Vice and Mental Disorder: Vice as Manifestation of a Psychological Dysfunction
  • Michael B. First (bio)

DSM-IV, psychiatric diagnosis, impulse control disorders, sexually violent predator commitment

Individuals generally present for psychiatric evaluation for one of two reasons: either because they themselves are suffering from a psychiatric symptom that causes distress (e.g., severe panic) or impairs their ability to function effectively (e.g., memory loss), or else they are brought to clinical attention because their behavior or attitudes are considered by others to be problematic. There are a wide range of behaviors that fall into this second category. In some cases, the individual is pressured to seek treatment because of the negative impact that a behavior has on a relationship partner (e.g., sexual dysfunction, anger outbursts) or an employer (e.g., excessive alcohol use). Often, however, the external trigger for a clinical evaluation falls under Sadler’s definition of vice, that is, criminal (illegal) behaviors or attitudes that could be considered “wrongful” or “immoral” in the social arena because the behavior violates the law or an important social more.

Given that one of the most important goals of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is to facilitate clinical practice (First et al. 2004) and in doing so provide a diagnostic code to cover any patient that might present himself or herself to a mental health professional, the DSM has evolved over its various editions to become a veritable laundry list of psychological and behavioral ills, some of which may constitute a violation of the rights of others or society. The DSM-III (and its successors) have adopted a descriptive approach wherein disorders are defined in terms of their presenting surface symptomatology, which was necessitated by the field’s lack of knowledge about the underlying etiology of mental disorders. Given this reliance on presenting symptoms, it is therefore inevitable that some disorders are defined in terms of behaviors that can be considered vices. For example, impaired impulse [End Page 35] control often leads to acting out behavior that, at its mildest is inappropriate, and at its most severe is destructive to self and others. Many of the disorders cited by Sadler as being vice-laden fall into this category, namely, pyromania (failure to resist impulses to set fires), kleptomania (failure to resist impulses to steal), intermittent explosive disorder (failure to resist aggressive impulses), certain forms of substance abuse (i.e., those involving possession and use of illegal substances) and paraphilias (i.e., those involving nonconsenting victims).

It is important to clarify from the outset that the criteria for determining whether a behavior is a “vice” (i.e., whether it is illegal or immoral) is not equivalent to the criteria for determining whether a behavior is indicative of a mental disorder. According to the DSM-IV-TR definition, a mental disorder is conceptualized as a “clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom” (American Psychiatric Association [APA] 2000, xxxi). The definition warns against considering “deviant behavior[s] (e.g., political, religious, or sexual)” and “conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society” to be evidence of mental disorder except in those cases in which the “deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual.” Thus, when considering whether a particular “vice” behavior is a component of a mental disorder, it is crucial to determine whether the behavior is a manifestation of an underlying psychological dysfunction, such as a dysfunction in impulse control. If so, it may potentially be appropriate for that individual to be treated as “medically ill” in addition to, or instead of, being treated simply as a criminal.

Let us examine some illustrative examples of cases that demonstrate the relationship between vice and mental disorders and the different ways in which the legal and mental health systems might deal with such cases. Consider the case of an individual who breaks...


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pp. 35-38
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