Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder - 3: Cannibalism

Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder – 3: Cannibalism

Humans have reported doing bizarre things that are stranger than fiction. With the quality to breach every extent to survive and conquer, the human race has eventually developed many traits and attributes that are questionable. Cannibalism is one such aspect that has been regarded as a gross mental illness. Although, the tales and myths surrounding the practice have given it a spiritualistic yet horrific angle. Many groups and sects in the world practice cannibalism as a mode of survival and religious beliefs. However, the modern take on the practice is more focused on it being an addiction or mental illness.

Cannibalism is defined as the practice of eating human flesh by another human being. People following the practice are known as cannibals. The practice is not only grotesque in nature but also very disturbing, considering the conventional lifestyle of the entire human race. So, many started perceiving cannibalism as a mental disorder.

Debate on cannibalism as mental disorder

Outrageous behavior, unconventional habits and unusual perception of things often brings an individual on the radar of being mentally ill. Linking this ideology with the gruesome act of cannibalism led people to perceive the practice as a mental disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not list cannibalism as a mental disorder, although it states that individuals may follow the practice for reasons of survival in the circumstances such as famine or ritual process due to some underlying severe mental disorder.

Cannibalism is not a new practice. It was prevalent even in ancient civilizations. The practice was then followed for reasons of survival and religious beliefs, today it is considered an addiction and mental illness.

Cannibalism has always remained a topic of debate among psychologists. While making efforts to identify the factors that can lead a person to practice criminal cannibalism, experts and doctors have ended in developing several theories. However, none of them was able to give a better understanding of the possible psychological factors behind cannibalism.

Possible psychological condition associated with cannibalism

In an article titled ‘Experts Debate What Forces Create a Cannibal’, Dr. Clancy McKenzie, a psychology professor at Capital University in Washington D.C., has been quoted as saying that cannibalism is a result of trauma, especially that experienced in childhood. According to Dr. McKenzie, a child tends to experience separation anxiety when weaned from the breast. This may result in fantasizing him about devouring the mother. “A person who has experienced this may regress back to this stage in adulthood due to stress or trauma and lead the individual to seek out the fulfillment he has been denied by resorting to cannibalism,” explained Dr. McKenzie.

The DSM considers reasons such as paranoid schizophrenia can play as the trigger leading to cannibalism. This can be supported by a case report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The report talks about a patient who was unaware of his schizophrenia and admitted to committing acts of cannibalism. “Cases of this nature are exceedingly unusual, but the fact that people with schizophrenia commit uncommon, unpredictable crimes attracts the media. This circumstance not only interferes with the natural course of the disease, but also affects the therapeutic behavior and how the patient is perceived by society,” the NCBI report said.

Road to recovery

Although the DSM does not consider cannibalism a mental illness, many still perceive the practice as a rare mental disorder. While some experts argue that cannibalism is a result of the underlying characteristic of schizophrenia, including thought disturbance, delusions and hallucinations, another segment believes it to be an addiction as many cannibals reported feeling ‘high’ after the completion of the practice.

The aspect underlying mental disorders further draws attention towards the importance of medical treatment at the earliest for any mental illness. If you or a loved one is suffering from any kind of mental illness, contact the California Mental Health Helpline to learn about mental health facilities in California. You may call our 24/7 helpline number (855) 559-3923 or chat online to speak with our representatives who can guide you to one of the best mental health treatment centers in California.

Read the other articles of the series “Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder:”

  1. Homosexuality
  2. Oedipus complex
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