Richard G. Petty, MD

Schizophrenia, Psychosis and Psychopathy

Ever since the tragedy in Virginia earlier this week, everyone has been trying to second guess what happened. As I said, to the trained eye there is a lot to suggest that he had a psychotic condition, but whether it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychotic depression is guess work.

One of the things that has been worrying in all the media coverage has not only been the sensationalism that we have seen in some quarters, but the mistakes that reporters – and even some of the "experts" – have made in talking about mental illness. I have heard people constantly mixing up schizophrenia and psychopathy, which is more accurately called antisocial personality disorder. I have even heard an old mistake that I had thought died years ago: that schizophrenia is a "split personality." I think that mistake probably goes back to a misunderstanding of the roots of the term "schizophrenia," and it was perpetuated by Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho in 1960.

Let me just repeat: schizophrenia is NOT a split personality. Neither is it multiple personality disorder. There is even a lot of discussion whether multiple personality disorder, now known as "Dissociative identity disorder" really exists: a discussion for another day.

Because there has been so much confusion, I thought that it would be good to clarify what each of these disorders is.

You can get some of the information from Wikipedia. What has worried me a bit is that some websites have slightly questionable infrmation. Many people know that I do a great deal of advocacy work for the mentally ill, so these notes are from my own lectures.

For reliable back up information, I recommend using to search, and you can check out at Wikipedia,, the National Institute of Mental Health website, Medline Plus and the National Alliance for the  Mentally Ill.


Psychosis is simply a generic term for a mental illness in which people have a "loss of contact with reality." There are often other symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusional beliefs, disorganized thinking and a lack of insight into the unusual or bizarre nature of his or her behavior. Almost anything that stresses the nervous system enough may lead to psychosis. I have often told students that it is possible to induce psychosis in just about anyone. It is a symptom and not a disease. We sometimes call it the "fever of the nervous system."


This is a group of illnesses that describe a mental disorder characterized by impairments in people’s perception or expression of reality
and by significant social or occupational dysfunction. The point is that other people don’t share their view of reality and it is causing suffering. There is always some smart Alec student who says, "But isn’t religion a delusion?" The answer is no, of course it isn’t. Millions of people share the same beliefs. The second piece is also important: is it causing suffering, distress or disability? Many people have ideas that are "different." That does not mean that they are mentally ill. Professionals should not get involved unless the beliefs are causing a problem.

A person
experiencing schizophrenia typically has disorganized thinking, and may experience delusions or hallucinations. In Western cultures these are most commonly auditory hallucinations. Simply having hallucinations does NOT mean that someone is mentally ill. I seem to be one of the few psychiatrists that supports the aims of the Hearing Voices Network. The Network tries to help people who are experiencing hallucinations and to educate the public and professionals that there are many possible reasons for hearing voices and many have nothing to do with mental illness.

One of the most disabling things about the schizophrenic group of illnesses is that they primarily affect  cognition, and that is one of the things that can lead to chronic problems with behavior and emotion. For a long time there was a worry that the cognitive problems were a result of being on some of the older medications. But these cognitive problems were identified decades before the introduction of these medicines. Hence the old name of schizophreia: dementia praecox.

The diagnosis is based on self-report and observation. We do not have a laboratory test for these illnesses, but we are finding reproducible changes in the brain and in many genes. The main evidence for the illnesses is still based on their response to treatment.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether we should abandon the term "schizophrenias," since the current diagnostic approach is flawed: many people have psychotic experiences without becoming dsitressed or disabled. Neither can they – or should they – be diagnosed. This gets back to the categorical and dimensional argument that I have talked about before. The second point is that the label "schizophrenia" can be so stigmatizing.

Antisocial Personality Disorder
Antisocial personaity disorder is also referred to as psychopathy, sociopathy or dyssocial personality disorder. It is a condition characterized by lack of empathy or conscience, and poor impulse control or manipulative behaviors. The term originally came from the Greek psyche (meaning soul, breath or mind) and pathos (to suffer). At one time the term was used to describe all mental illness, and that is why there is confusion. It is quite different from psychosis. Psychosis is a chronic or intermittent symptom that comes on at some time in life. Antisocial personality disorder should have been present all the time, even though we cannot formally diagnose it until the age of eighteen. The term "psychopath" is not a good one: it has no precise equivalent in either the DSM-IV-TR or the ICD-10.

Only a minority of diagnosable psychopaths are violent offenders . There has been a lot of discussion about whether the manipulative skills of some of the non-violent psychopaths are valuable in corporate America, the military and academia, because they may bold and often charismatic leaders. The has even been a suggestion that becoming a "psychopath" may be an adaptation to working in a highly competitive
environment: it gets results for both the individual and for their
corporations or countries.

There is a recent book – Snakes in Suits – that does a good job of exploring these ideas.

In summary:
Psychosis = A symptom
Schizophrenia = A group of acute or chronic illnesses in which psychosis is a central feature
Antisocial Personality Disorder = a.k.a. "Psychopathy:" life long personality trait


About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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