"Affluenza" Defense Used to Get Killer of 4 Light Sentence

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Friday, December 13, 2013
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I must admit I had never heard of the term "affluenza" until I read about it in this morning's news headlines. I thought to myself "well they've found a new variant of the flu" (a.k.a. influenza). Oh if things were only that simple. 

Apparently, "affluenza" is a term that some, including Ph.D. psychologist G. Dick Miller have used to describe a so-called disorder of the affluent. In fact, an Internet search reveals that this term has been used, largely in jest, to describe children of wealthy parents who spoil them. Even Dr. Miller suggested this by stating in Part II of his interview with Anderson Cooper that "we used to call these people spoiled brats." 

So why am I using up valuable blog space and taking up my readers' precious time writing about this seemingly non-sensical word? Answer: because four innocent people died as a result of a 16 year-old young man who admitted he ran over them while driving drunk. The dead included a wife, her daughter and two others. But the carnage did not stop there - other victims were significantly injured by this apparent sufferer of "affluenza," the very term Dr. Miller invoked to assist in getting a lighter sentence (essentially probation and some therapy) for this young killer of four.

As part of my formal training to become a board certified forensic psychiatrist, I learned that so-called voluntary intoxication does not on its own constitute a mental health defense. For example, if someone chooses to drink a gallon of vodka and proceeds to shoot someone this is unlikely to be deemed a legitimate medico-legal defense. This should be differentiated from involuntary intoxication, which might result from someone placing an intoxicating substance into someone else's drink without her or his knowledge. This was clearly not the case with the young man Dr. Miller testified suffers from affluenza.

One thing I would like to know is how in the blazes was Dr. Miller even permitted to testify that this 16 year-old suffered from this "affluenza"?  I have not come across any peer-reviewed, quality research stating that "affluenza" is or should become a bona fide mental health diagnois, and it is not even mentioned in the DSM-5 as a psychiatric diagnosis. Although I am not an attorney, this would seem to violate the Daubert standard - a court standard that specifies scientific testimony must be relevant, reliable and based on valid studies. I do not believe that any of my colleagues would call affluenza a relevant, reliable and valid diagnosis. However, since Dr. Miller's testimony on this so-called disorder has apparently been accepted by the court system might not other seemingly ridiculous legal defenses begin to spring up?

Let me be abundantly clear: as a board certified psychiatrist, child psychiatrist and forensic psychiatrist I strive to avoid using the term "crazy." But that's just what this ridiculous "affluenza" defense is - CRAZY.

-Dr. Tim