How Easy is it to Fake Mental Illness?


Jack Nickolson: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

If caught, can one simply fake insanity to manipulate the charges?

via BBC

A tribunal is about to decide whether Moors Murderer Ian Brady is moved frommental hospital back to prison. Brady has said he used “method acting” techniques to fool psychiatrists, but how often does this really happen?

The staff at Ashworth Hospital argue Ian Brady is a paranoid schizophrenic and should stay in their care.

But Brady, who killed five children, says he was pretending all along, using the method acting techniques of Constantin Stanislavski to fool doctors and psychologists.

Whether or not Brady is telling the truth, the issue is one psychiatrists – particularly those working with criminals – have had to deal with for many years.

In 2007, Stuart Harling was jailed for life for the murder of nurse Cheryl Moss in Essex. Harling’s lawyers claimed he suffered from a personality disorder, but the jury didn’t believe his unstable behaviour in court – which included hurling papers from the dock and shouting threats – and rejected his claims of innocence on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

In 1996, a jury in Glasgow rejected James Lindsay’s insanity plea and he was sentenced to life for murdering 15-year-old Emma Thomson. While awaiting trial, Lindsay wrote to a friend from Barlinnie Prison: “I’ve a cunning plan to get into Carstairs [mental hospital] and be released after eight years.”

But the Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi, represents perhaps the classic case of a criminal faking a mental disorder.

Apprehended for a dozen murders of young women in California, Bianchi managed to persuade several respected experts – while under hypnosis – that he had an unpleasant alter ego “Steve”. It was this “Steve” that had committed the horrific crimes.

If the experts’ diagnosis of multiple personality disorder was allowed to stand, Bianchi would be able to plead not guilty by reason of insanity and would be unable to give evidence against his co-accused Angelo Buono.

But investigators brought in another psychologist, Martin Orne, an expert in hypnosis, who was able to uncover Bianchi’s ruse.

Told by Orne that multiple personality disorder patients usually had at least three personalities, Bianchi promptly invented another one called “Billy”. Bianchi also exaggerated his confusion at seeing the evidence of actions committed by “Steve” – such as the removal of filter tips from cigarettes during a previous interview.

A police search of Bianchi’s house turned up a raft of textbooks on psychology, behavioural science, hypnosis and police procedure law. He had also viewed the movies Sybil and Three Faces of Eve, both dealing with multiple personality disorder.

He had taken the name of his alternate personality – Steve Walker – from that of a psychology student whose identity he had faked earlier in order to obtain accreditation.

While Orne and the police were never fooled, several experts had been.

Sentencing Bianchi, the judge said: “In this Mr Bianchi was unwittingly aided and abetted by most of the psychiatrists who naively swallowed Mr Bianchi’s story hook, line and sinker.”



  • Haystack

    It’s a lot easier to convince people that you’re crazy than that you’re sane. Trying to convince people that you’re sane is, after all, something crazy people do.

  • Tchoutoye

    But Brady, who killed five children, says he was pretending all along,
    using the method acting techniques of Constantin Stanislavski to fool
    doctors and psychologists.

    In his trilogy Sinister Forces, Peter Levenda argues that the Stanislavski Method “has its roots very firmly in the occult tradition”, it being a codified form of the original purpose of theatre, that of a religious and mystical experience. According to Stanislavski himself, the Method’s main principle is that “through conscious means we reach the unconscious”. Levenda goes on to describe the Method as invoking a kind of dissociation: “For what is an actor but a person who specializes in multiple personalities?”

    If the dissociation of a Method actor is the means for a great acting performance, in the case of Ian Brady using the Method to act out a state of dissociation, the means and the goal become one and the same. If Brady were schizophrenic to begin with, you could argue that utilizing the Method (i.e. reaching the unconscious) would only come more natural to him.

  • Tchoutoye

    From the BBC article, on how to spot a faker: “You’re trying to lead them into saying they have a set of symptoms which it’s not possible to have. If they say they are experiencing them, you have a very strong basis for determining that they’re lying

    The suggested premise seems to be that someone who suffers from mental illness cannot tell lies about their own condition, even when induced to do so by trickery. But excessive lying is a common symptom of several mental illnesses, such as Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). What we have here then is a variation on the Epimenides paradox.

  • Hadrian999

    it’s not hard at all now that they’ve turned everything that falls outside complacent consumerism into a disorder

  • howiebledsoe

    How can a sane person murder 5 children in cold blood? I can never wrap my head around this issue.

  • BuzzCoastin

    if politico psychopaths can easily fain sanity as a defense
    I would assume insanity is also easily fained as a defense
    real insanity is to assume you understand what’s going on

  • rhetorics_killer

    What is clearly stated in this article is the utter insanity of the average psychiatrists. The Rosenhan experience is appalling, considering the huge number of mistakes triggered by either certitude or incertitude in their minds. And these guys have jurisdictional powers beyond all reasoning, too. What a mess in this world order.!