Lebanon News

Hajj Dibs killings highlight dangers of mental health misdiagnoses

BEIRUT: Psychologists are warning against the dangers of misdiagnoses after Sunday’s family murder in Ras al-Nabeh, initially linked to the eldest son’s autism.

Primary investigations into the incident suggest Hadi al-Hajj Dib, 25, shot his mother and five siblings before taking his own life.

His father, Ali al-Hajj Dib, reportedly told investigators that his eldest son was autistic, and this was quickly circulated in the media, seemingly as some causal link to the crime.

Experts are now warning of the confusion surrounding mental illnesses in Lebanon, and the acute lack of understanding that exists among the public.

“Autistic children do not do these things. They live in their own world, but they do not have a distorted perception of reality,” Dr. Ketty Sarouphim, associate professor of psychology at the Lebanese American University, told The Daily Star Thursday.

The Lebanese Autism Society released a statement regarding the crime, which said: “The LAS deeply regrets the crimes perpetrated … which have resulted in a tragedy. But it condemns the statement in the media suggesting that the perpetrator was a person with autism,” and added that “a person with autism is not able to use the type of weapon used in this crime because this type of weapon requires certain skills.”

Sarouphim added that “Schizophrenia is really the only mental health disorder that we know of which leads to crime. Depression can, in some cases, lead to suicide, but not to violent crime.”

Schizophrenics, she said, have a distorted perception of reality, and often hear voices, which may lead them to carry out violent crimes.

While investigations into Sunday’s incident are not yet complete, Sarouphim believes that if Hadi al-Hajj Dib was responsible, it is probable “that this person was likely hearing voices telling him to kill his family in order to protect them.”

Such crimes, therefore, do not stem from aggression or violence.

“These sorts of crimes are about compassion. The individual genuinely believes they are helping their family,” she added.

Sarouphim believes that while the family may have known that their eldest son was suffering from some sort of mental illness, there was clearly a misdiagnosis if they thought it was autism, which is a communication development disorder.

Dr. Rita Merhej, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at the Haigazian University and LAU, agrees that there is a widespread lack of understanding surrounding mental health issues in Lebanon.

“The rumors that were spread about this family massacre reveal the total lack of awareness,” Merhej said, adding that “unfortunately the repercussions of such a mediatized tragedy are quite distressing: now each family with a disabled member of its family will start worrying about its fate.”

In regards to autism specifically, Merhej stressed that “we must vigorously differentiate between mental illness, mental retardation, and other types of mental disorders, namely the communication developmental disorders, such as autism.”

It was “absolutely impossible,” Merhej added, that an autistic person could have committed such a crime.

“People with autism live in their own world, it is a hermetic world, they do not “see” the other, they do not communicate with the other,” Merhej explained. “Aggression, and committing a criminal act, is a form of communication with the other, you inflict pain on the other. An autistic person is incapable of committing himself to carry out such a “communicative” act. He might hurt himself, but never others.”

Family massacres such as Sunday’s are more likely to be, Merhej said, “the result of a lonely, psychopathic personality who obviously needed a lot of help, but who couldn’t get it.”

This help, Sarouphim said, in the form of medication and psychotherapy, is available, but the lack of public awareness surrounding schizophrenia often makes it difficult for sufferers to receive adequate treatment.

“People talk about depression, and so and so having a ‘mental breakdown,’ but what does actually mean? There is no such clinical term as a ‘mental breakdown.’”

“Very few people talk about schizophrenia … if people do not feel touched directly by these issues,” Sarouphim added.

A deeper understanding of mental health issues is needed, both psychologists argue, if sufferers are to receive the correct treatment and if similar crimes are to be prevented in the future.

Public discussion surrounding such issues, Merhej said, can “do a lot to sensitize people as to the real causes, not the myths.” And, “on a deeper level, parents should be properly educated in parenting issues, and school personnel must pay more attention to children’s behavior in the courtyard, not just their grades in quizzes.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 23, 2011, on page 3.

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