June 11th, 2012
05:45 PM ET

What is histrionic personality disorder?

The trial of  Jerry Sandusky has begun. Prosecutors accuse the former Penn State assistant football coach of abusing at least 10 boys, allegations that have become widely known.

What may be less familiar is a mental illness his lawyers are connecting with him: Histrionic personality disorder.  The defense attorneys say they intend to offer expert testimony from a psychologist who "will explain that the words, tones, requests and statements made in the letters are consistent with a person who suffers from a Histrionic Personality Disorder," according to documents.

Histrionic personality disorder is part of a class of conditions called dramatic personality disorders, which are marked by unstable emotions and distorted self-images, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

For these people, self-esteem doesn't come from true feelings of self worth, but rather from the approval from other people, and those suffering from this disorder will often engage in dramatic or inappropriate behaviors to call attention to themselves.

“People develop this disorder because they have a need to be appreciated and to feel valued and worthwhile and special,” said Nadine Kaslow, psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine, who has not treated Sandusky.

About 2% to 3% of the general population is thought to have histrionic personality disorder, she said.  "We all have traits that resemble this, but it becomes a problem when all of the symptoms are combined in a way that makes functioning difficult."

Inflicting sexual abuse is not a commonly recognized trait of this condition, but sexually-provocative behavior is, she adds.

People with this personality disorder may also change emotions rapidly, overly dwell on physical appearance, and take criticism or disapproval sensitively. They are easily influenced by others and make rash decisions, according to the Cleveland Clinic.  Rarely showing concern for others, they often find it challenging to maintain relationships.  People with histrionic personality disorder may even threaten or attempt suicide for the sake of getting attention.

No one knows what causes this disorder, but experts say it's probably a combination of nature and nurture.  The personality disorder can run in families, suggesting a genetic connection, but children may also be influenced by their parents in ways that would lead kids to crave attention or be confused about how to get parents' approval.

The standard treatment for this disorder is a type of counseling called psychotherapy, in which a mental health professional helps the person delve into what's causing their thoughts and behaviors, and figure out how to create more positive relationships. Depression and anxiety may be issues for some patients, and may be treated with medications.  But generally this personality disorder has not received a lot of attention in terms of evidence-based treatments, Kaslow said.

It's important to seek help if you believe you have symptoms of histrionic personality disorder, especially if it's causing trouble in your romantic or professional life.

soundoff (856 Responses)
  1. bolt

    He's a pedo. Nuke em. Next topic.

    June 11, 2012 at 18:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Stacey

    Most likely, it's learned behavior.

    June 11, 2012 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. John Dough

    He l l, Coach Sodomy is almost as bad as that worthless, talentless molester–Mikey "Pedo-Bear" Jackson–who should have been executed!

    June 11, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brian

      Wow, what an ignorant, classless thing to say.

      While Sandusky's fate still is yet to be determined, Michael was found NOT GUILTY of those charges. And the 1994 trial? Everyone knows it was all about money, and the accuser got what he wanted. There was still no proof Michael did anything.

      In both cases, Michael and his defense team didn't make up excuses like "he has a mental illness" or anything like that...they stood up and fought against the charges. Why can't Sandusky do the same?

      June 11, 2012 at 21:04 | Report abuse |
  4. Sprite

    I'm sorry that Mr. Sandusky suffers from a pyschological problem, but I wonder if he has any remorse for the issues he has put on those that he molested? Those people will suffer a lifetime of trauma and probably counseling for what he did. Mr. Sandusky needs to go to prison – or to a place for the crimimally insane. He has no place in normal society.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Billy

      His money buyed a mental illness.....................Does he think the world was raised in a barn but himself..HAHaHA

      June 11, 2012 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
  5. ComSenseWiz

    Shrinks have every conceivable adverse behavior categorized as a "decease" in need of their services. Whatever but whether Sandusky has this invented disorder, he needs to pay with jail time for life in a state pen within the general population without one dime being spent for "therapy" other than free Bubba administered poop chute therapy weekly at the minimum.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dorkus

      Um, the word is disease. Decease means die. Look it up some time.

      June 11, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse |
  6. ma & pa

    No excuses for that lurking, dominating entrapper of the trusting, believing, grateful for what seemed like help, children. WITHOUT exploitation, it would be like good family. With exploitation, it was used like 4?&&. Guys, we are so sad and angry that we were so mind and body exhausted almost to death, that we couldn't process any incomming info to help you priceless children at the time. We are grieving your injuries furious at such abuse.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dorkus

    He's going to walk away a free man, or at the very worst, have to undergo therapy (all paid for by the people of PA of course). That poor, poor man, if only we had known about this before we never would have arrested him.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Icurheinie

      Nobody believes that you believe that. Non conformist by nature?

      June 11, 2012 at 21:54 | Report abuse |
    • Icurheinie

      Pure EVIL. They should hang him like they hanged Saddam. With plenty of pocket videos circulating the net for good measure.

      June 11, 2012 at 21:58 | Report abuse |
  8. Marion

    "Inflicting sexual abuse is not a commonly recognized trait of this condition, but sexually-provocative behavior is, she adds."

    End of story! it does not apply to him. The jury will not buy this defense at all. defense attorney grasping at straws.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. DocReality

    Histrionic P/D falls into the category of "Cluster B" personality disorders which also include Borderline, Narcissistic and Antisocial. While it's possible he may have some traits of histrionic personality, many pedophiles are narcissistic in that they exploit others to achieve their own goals; as it is against the law to engage in such behaviors in this country, Mr. Sandusky's apparent disregard for the rights of his victims along with his disregard for the law would definitely place him in the antisocial (i.e. sociopathic) category.

    The defense can claim mental illness all they want to. In the end it will be VERY difficult to convince a jury that Mr. Sandusky was in such an impaired state that he could not distinguish RIGHT from WRONG. On top of that, he showed no remorse for the victims, which may be indicative of where his head's really at on all of this.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Eric Hawk

      From what little I gathered from the article, the defense will not claim diminished capacity or not guilty by reason of insanity. They will instead claim that the content of the letters in question are not incriminating, framing them in terms of the disorder. The plea still remains "not guilty."

      June 11, 2012 at 21:53 | Report abuse |
    • WaitaSec

      For some reason I can't post a new reply, so responding to your post is as good a place as any.

      HPD is going out the window in the next version of the DSM. Mental health defenses are weak to begin with. Good luck to him using one that is being tossed aside due to a lack of evidence based research on the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

      June 11, 2012 at 21:56 | Report abuse |
  10. Marion


    Shrinks have every conceivable adverse behavior categorized as a "decease" in need of their services

    You have that right!! I was once diagnosed with depression just because I told the shrink I had trouble sleeping due to a lot of "stuff" that was going on in my life at the time. He wanted to give me shock therapy. If I was "depressed" at all it was due to not being able to sleep....not because I was depressed. Insomnia is rampant in this country....and all they want to give you are antidpressants to help you sleep. It is the insomnia that causes depression, not the other way around. "Shock therapy"?? get real doctor.

    June 11, 2012 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ma & pa

    Imperfect as it is, we still believe the justice system of the U.S. is best in the world. The feelings we manage to keep under control agree with ComSenseWiz.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. canadian angel

    i couldn't even finish reading this article becasue if they are going to link him to a personality disorder, then geeze, might as well start letting out the pedo's from the penal system and have them use the same argument. Really. Anything to save him. They are grasping at straws. Look at magnotta. He is narcissistic. Are they gonna try him for mental disorders as well? Sandusky knows right from wrong, this makes me shake my head in disgust.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • watergirl

      Or most people who commit crimes have a mental illness. Is that so hard to believe?

      June 12, 2012 at 12:54 | Report abuse |
    • Kdub

      1. He has pedophilia.
      2. Having a "mental illness" doesn't excuse his behavior–he needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
      3. Nobody gives a dam* about WHY he did this or what his thought process is/was. It's criminal. It's sick. It's incurable. It has destroyed so many lives and there is no place in our society for "people" like him.

      June 14, 2012 at 14:19 | Report abuse |
  13. jaimie

    Ahhh I see what happened. He bumped his head and that made him rape children. Now what other syndrome is he going to suffer from that made him molest little boys. Dude you are guilty as sin and you are going to pay for it in prison. Wait till they get ahold of you there. Inmates love molesters. Have fun inmate and do not cry to the guards when they house you with bubba.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. EdL

    I previously thought histrionic personality disorder was a problem for those of the Democrat persuasion. I was never really sure if this was what infected them but I knew there was something there.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jabber

    Anyone that exploits children has some sort of disorder or they wouldn't do it.....Is bein EVIL considered a disorder? Does that mean we let them all off the hook? I certainly hope not. All else I know to say is "He better be glad it wasn't one of my children". And how would the lawyer feel if this happend to one of his children......just saying....The jury won't buy into his "I deserve to get to do whatever I want because I have a disorder". GO JURY

    June 11, 2012 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Gerisike

    I agree with DocReality. This disorder does fall under the same cluster as narcissistic, borderline, and antisocial. If I were a betting person, and of course I have not examined him, I would bet on the latter although he certainly has features of all of them. Individuals with a personality disorder may be impaired to a degree but they certainly know right from wrong.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. mfbnc

    after reading about this disorder, I think I now have a better understanding of Congress.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. paganguy

    Mental disorder: the devil made me do it.
    Funny that only well-off guys get this kind of stuff. Average people go to jail.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Argle Bargle

    The only disorder he has is wanting to stick his willy into some little boy's backside.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. flossy

    Mental illness my a s s .

    June 11, 2012 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. T. R.

    Here's what should occur in the courtroom, as the complete cross-examination of the defense's psychologist...

    Prosecutor: Is inflicting sexual abuse a commonly recognized trait of histrionic personality disorder?
    Witness: No.
    Prosecutor: No more questions, your honor.

    June 11, 2012 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. izandroro

    "Histrionic personality disorder is a condition in which people act in a very emotional and dramatic way that draws attention to themselves. People with this disorder are usually able to function at a high level and can be successful socially and at work."
    He's a drama queen.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. A

    If this is a true disorder, I know about 50 people that have it. They aren't running around abusing kids.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jim34

    All these pedophiles have some sort of mental illness. He should go to jail regardless.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. klamerus@pobox.com

    There's a far simpler explanation of histrionic personality disorder.

    Histrionic personality disorder is something that defence lawyers pull out to try and get their clients off.

    Simple as that.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. beadlesaz

    And, one of the manifestations of this disorder is having young boys perform oral sex on you? Yeah, that justifies everything – NOT.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. mastrick

    Sandusky deserves a fair trial – if he is found guilty he should not be treated any differently than any other felony convict. He should serve his time in general population where he can reflect on his errors with his fellow prisoners 🙂

    June 11, 2012 at 21:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Brian

    Excuses, excuses, excuses. The defense's case is strong against Sandusky, and this is the best they can do? Any mental illness Sandusky may (or may not) have does not equal the mental and emotional scars that the children he molested have to bear the rest of their lives. Murderers who go on a rampage and kill dozens of people can claim insanity or another mental illness, but does it justify what they did? Does it help the victims' families feel better? Does it give anything back to the people who were affected by such a crime? No, no, and no.

    Sandusky needs to step up for himself...if he has this disorder, how long has he had it? Why wait until just now to reveal it? Too many questions, and I'm sure we won't be getting all the answers.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. PaulC

    Duh! He's a pervert, of course he has a mental problem.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. dee

    He deserves to go to prison....what ever comes around goes around. He should be on the receiving end the next go round (if you get my drift)...lol

    June 11, 2012 at 21:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. SSimpson

    Mental Illness is real – But using this disorder as an excuse, minimizes those that actually suffer from the illness...

    Granted – he DOES have an illness – Pedophelia – and that warrants a long incarceration in a facility....any facility, but away from us andour children...

    Those who covered it up should be legally accountable as well – rgardless of WHY Sandusky did this, some people knew who SHOULD have brought this forward –

    Those who cover for pedophiles are just as guilty – that includes Penn State and those in the Sports department – INCLUDING Paterno – Someone who covers for pedophiles loses ALL good deed points with me – all...

    And to round it out – The Pope should be jailed too – for his part in enforcing the cover-up before he was Pope –

    June 11, 2012 at 21:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ForGoodOfAll

      Great post, Simpson!!

      June 11, 2012 at 21:33 | Report abuse |
  32. Ibrahim

    Speaking as a psychologist, I will say that HPD, like all personality disorders, is not a disease that one "has," like diabetes or cancer. Although many etiological, genetic, and environmental factors influence the development of HPD, including sexual abuse, personality disorders do not impair one's ability to make moral judgments. Schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, however, do impair moral judgement. Even if Sandusky is legitimately diagnosed with HPD, it does not absolve him in any way, shape or form.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. DM

    This disorder seems to describe everyone at some point somehow and somewhere. It's a BS cop-out label.

    “People develop this disorder because they have a need to be appreciated and to feel valued and worthwhile and special,” said Nadine Kaslow

    Bravo Kaslow! Who the hell doesn't have this need? I want to feel valued, but I don't go around sodomizing kids to get it.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • watergirl

      Read the article. Something becomes a disorder when it disrupts normal life functions. Everyone gets sad, but if you don't leave your house for 6 months, that is a disorder.

      June 12, 2012 at 12:57 | Report abuse |
  34. bailee

    Just looking at Sandusky makes me sick to my stomach!! He truly belongs in prison for the rest of his natural life. He doesn't have a mental illnesws. He is just a "sexual predator", who thought he was sooooooooo powerful, he would never get caught!!

    June 11, 2012 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. ForGoodOfAll

    Pedophilia is a personality disorder, and acting as a pedophile against minors is a CRIME. Throw the book at him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 11, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. kevgood

    Sandusky's a staunch Republican.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Matt

    Time for Sandusky to come clean and plead guilty and accept his life imprisonment and seek forgiveness from God. But by no means do I think he deserves it. After listening to the interview with Bob Costas though I think this slimeball has no remorse other then getting caught.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Les

    Why the incredibly irritating music behind this story? Is it supposed to make it exciting?

    June 11, 2012 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. JJ

    This disgusting excuse for a human being will do anything to avoid going to jail, because he knows what happens to pedophiles, child molesters, perverts and other assorted vermin there. I say throw him in there with the general population, or better yet, lock him up in the shower with Bubba and his friends.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. ChurnTheNews

    Penn State knew all about this and should be sold at auction.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Thywilla Bedone

    Mary had a little lamb, well that's what she gets for sleeping in a barn!

    June 11, 2012 at 21:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. SPW

    You can try and paint a disorder, but at the end of the day he just craved little boys.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. KM

    "No one knows what causes this disorder, but experts say it's probably" being put on public trial for being a serial pedophile.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Ember

    So the Sandusky team will claim mental illness. I think they have a good basis for it – they have to be crazy to represent a turd like Sandusky.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Curmodgeon

    I am increasing aggravated, no–make that incensed, at the psychiatric community's ignoble attempts to 'invent' illnesses that absolve pedophiles, rapists, child abusers, drug addicts and other dangerous criminals of their crimes.

    Sandusky may be mentally ill, even stark raving maniacal, but that does not mean that he should not spend the rest of his miserable, useless life in the harshest prison environment possible. No amount of punishment can ever atone for the damage he has done to innocent young boys.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kdub

      I agree 100%

      I don't care if you are bi-polar, schizophrenic, have PTSD...if you commit crimes that hurt other people (you know, like raping kids?), you take your bi-polar-schizophrenic-PTSD-having-azz to prison.

      June 14, 2012 at 14:30 | Report abuse |
    • Lucy

      Please don't confuse the entire community of mental health professionals, of whom many spend a great deal of time and effort and education trying to help people cope with their lives and become more well-adjusted, with the handful of hacks who will shill any diagnosis for a buck.

      Granted, histrionic disorder is often a hack diagnosis (historically applied to women who got out of line), but that's why it is being removed from the DSM. 😉

      June 15, 2012 at 11:30 | Report abuse |
  46. little flap

    A Psychotic Person, A Psychopath, IS A CHOICE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Psychotic EQUALS Criminal !!!! Psychotic MEANS Criminal !!!! Being a criminal IS A CHOICE !!!!!!!! A Psychotic perrson, ( a criminal), crosses a line - ( chooses to cross that 'line'), and become a criminal. == See – definition in- Medical Dictionary.== of Psychopath, Once a person does this, crosses that 'Line" , in other words CHOOSES to become a criminal, they almost NEVER NEVER NEVER come 'back'. IT IS NOT A MENTAL ILLNES !!!!!!!! IT IS A CHOICE !!!!! And they will choose their 'crimes' AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i always say the same thing-–more EDUCATION IS NEEDED TO RECOGNIZE THESE PEOPLE !!!!!!!!!!!!! EDUCATION can then becoma a protection. YES to a 'mental' DISORDER,, AND NO (!) to mental 'illness'. CHOOSING to be a CRIMINAL is NOT an ILLNESS, !!!! , but yes it is as a disorder.

    June 11, 2012 at 21:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Doug

    Generally I agree with the therapists , in this case I say bull pucky.. This man is a pedophile.. I bet if his wife were to testify she would tell us this man has not f- her in years..

    June 11, 2012 at 21:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. zmi zmi

    I am a psychiatrist and this is the first time I hear that anyone would attempt to use Histrionic Personality Disorder as an NGRI
    ( not guilty by reasons of insanity) psychiatric defense. Defense team is more likely desperate than stupid, because this is stupid, stupid, stupid. Guilty!!

    June 11, 2012 at 21:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. wggmo

    Anyone who does things like this has a mental disorder!!!!!!!!(Duh) No excuse! He knew right from wrong and could not control himself! The fact that he was who he was just totally makes me sick! To much smoke for there not to be fire! GUILTY!

    June 11, 2012 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Texas

    Did they publish that disorder into the DSM this year, just for him?

    June 11, 2012 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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