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. cathy

    No dice. He wasn't engaging in this behavior to call attention to himself. He was hiding the behavior.

    June 12, 2012 at 06:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • childhood sexual abuse

      i agree. not only him, but the school also. and what happened to the missing guy?

      June 12, 2012 at 07:21 | Report abuse |
    • S

      Exactly. The last thing we want are these creeps claiming their crimes are due to mental illness, like alcoholics or something.

      June 12, 2012 at 07:41 | Report abuse |
    • max3333444555

      Everybody apparently has some kind of mental disorder. I dont see how this one affects the ability to know right from wrong.

      June 12, 2012 at 08:23 | Report abuse |
    • coopdog

      just more judicial BS from criminals trying to cover for their abhorant behavior. this world is goin to hell in a hand basket and the handle is cracked.

      June 12, 2012 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
  2. surfergirl

    Seriously, You OBVIOUSLY have to be mentally ill to do what Sandusky has done..But trying to get off with this defense, come on...

    June 12, 2012 at 06:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kaylene

      You are so right. – this is an Axis II diagnosis, a personality disorder – not a thought disorder – no excuse for anything. And not a diagnosis usually given to heterosexual men – doesn't in any way explain pedophilia. What happened to pleading guilty if you did the crime and throwing yourself on the mercy of the court?

      June 12, 2012 at 08:48 | Report abuse |
  3. HPN

    Well now we understand the, poor guy, now give life in prison, there are plenty of people in there who will give him the special attention he so dearly needs.

    June 12, 2012 at 06:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Linda Roth

      I thought I heard every defense possibly from my years as a corrections officer yet this is a first. Of course he's mentally ill, he has to be to do what he did yet that doesn't mean he's "criminally" insane. Crimimally insane means you do not KNOW IGHT FROM WRONG. He knows what he did is way wrong. A mentall disorders does not release a person from the consquenses of their behaviors. Believe me the prisons are full of people with "mental disorders". I agree, he'll get all the "special" attention he seeks while serving a life time sentence.

      June 12, 2012 at 07:27 | Report abuse |
  4. Rozelle

    This is what's wrong with Lady Gaga and Madonna. Doesn't fit Jerry.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. john

    he liked to F little boys-it's called pedophilia-the world is full of them-there IS NO DEFENSE!

    June 12, 2012 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • childhood sexual abuse

      i agree. the world is full of them. kids know who they are. they have to deal with them. and parents will continue to be naive.

      June 12, 2012 at 07:18 | Report abuse |
    • childhood sexual abuse

      don't leave your kids alone with men. there are just too many of them that will violate kids if given a chance.

      June 12, 2012 at 07:20 | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      CSA ... don't leave your children alone with Women, babysitters, their Fathers or Grandmas either. Paranoia is not the answer. The overwhelming majority of PEOPLE are not pedofiles and paranoia will do more damage to a childs future with the 50% of the population who are men than the small chance a pedo will abuse them. Don't be afraid of men, just have a little common sense around ALL people.

      June 12, 2012 at 08:36 | Report abuse |
  6. Amy

    So in other words...he's effin guilty. Bravo legal team.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • john

      he was caught in the act you dimwit-weren't you on the OJ and casey anthony jury???

      June 12, 2012 at 07:25 | Report abuse |
  7. childhood sexual abuse

    they are talking about kids being abused over a long period of time and meeting with the family and such. that's part of the trauma/retrauma actually. it could be your dad's best friend who smiles to his face when he sees him (and yes, its all very confusing for kids), but threatens you, rapes you, or fondles you when he isn't looking. its really very strange to live in that environment. they show up throughout life (funerals, etc.) i always thought it was to make sure that they shut us up. they are truly sick people. from the child perspective, its retrauma. suffering in silence.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Tim

    Personality disorders are Axis II disorders in the DSM IV. As such, they are not recognized as mental illness in any state that I am aware of. The guy is a pedophile and the defense can't explain that away.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Phung

    AKA the twinkie defense

    June 12, 2012 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. childhood sexual abuse

    is that like a control freak? they need to feel important. ask them questions, but get away from them asap. but kids don't know that. and people would be telling others how wonderful he is because x.y.z. that's really confusing to a kid. why did everyone around him think he was so great? and he's doing this to me? is this what adults do? horribly confusing to a kid. trapped.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Parent of Young Kids.

    We know he suffers from something......it's called PEDOPHILLIA. No need for the Defense team to explain further.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Tam

    Not sure about this disorder, but he seems kind of slow or something – in the way he speaks, and the expression. How did he get this far?!

    June 12, 2012 at 07:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. W.C. Burns

    Is that what they are calling Pedophilia these days? Histrionic personality disorder? Puleeze.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Pro Death

    And what is the administrations excuse for not reporting it to the police? Oh yeah, the win record...

    June 12, 2012 at 07:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Pro Death

    Come on if he was a homeless black man he'd already be fitted with a rope necktie

    June 12, 2012 at 07:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Areacode612

    Aren't all child molesters mentally ill?

    June 12, 2012 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. O.T.

    Child rape, murder, thievery are not personality disorders. They are crimes. You go to jail for them.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. thecynic

    trial in college area, beloved college, beloved football team. this guy will probably get off. and a parade besides.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • max3333444555

      i doubt it. the town and the college have been embarassed by his behavior. i dont think he will find much sympathy

      June 12, 2012 at 08:26 | Report abuse |
  19. pprty

    Sooo, is his wife & family going to testify that they knew he was nuts & did nothing? His lawyers need to be in jail for life with him!

    June 12, 2012 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Serge Moss

    Defense must have hired Officer Krupke. "He has a disorder." Yesterday the defense was saying the witness who saw Jerry buggering a child must have been mistaken. Today Jerry has a disorder.

    June 12, 2012 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. David

    Too bad he doesn't have the balls to hang himself

    June 12, 2012 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. JPX

    What an odd, silly defense. Histrionic Personality Disorder doesn’t remotely explain Sandusky’s behavior. Many people are histrionic – half of Hollywood is histrionic. Among the personality disorders Histrionic is considered the most benign. The classic movie example is Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. Zsa Zsa Gabor would also be given this diagnosis. Sandusky has only one diagnosis and that is pedophilia.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Fr33d0mhawk

    Just about every human being has some sort of psychological disorder, degrees of neuroticism, but that does not mean we shouldn't hold people accountable for their actions. Histrionic personality disorder has less to do with Sandusky's actions than does the fact that Sandusky is a sociopath who did not care one bit that he was hurting children. Sociopathology is one disorder that does not work as a defense because that disorder is evident in almost all violent crimes. Sandusky's problem is that he was unable to empathize with anyone other than himself. Even worse Sandusky had a team of enablers that basically turned a blind eye and gave that man access to children, the Catholic Church of Penn State. Those enablers should also share in the consequences, because people need to understand its more important to protect children than to protect an organization's pride.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • henne

      The most famous enabler, Paterno, is out of the reach of worldly justice, but apparently he had voiced some remorse for having turned a blind eye, We still have plenty of Penn State football fans who still clear JoePa of any blame. Edmund Burke said "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. "

      June 12, 2012 at 08:28 | Report abuse |
  24. Susan

    Is this all he has in a way of a defense? "Histronic" doesn't mean he doesn't know right from wrong.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Lisa

    This man sickens me! How on earth can he sit there and listen to these poor kids talk about his unspeakable acts on them. You have to be sick. I can't stand to look at him.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Matt

    What about the parts where he had apologized to some of the kids and or their parent? That seems a lot like he recognized what he was doing was wrong, but didnt seek help or call attention to the problem.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. mhub

    They are trying to use a defense like that female, beautiful, blond Georgia teacher who got off of a pediphile charge because they said she was manic depressive. I always had a feeling the jury just fell in love with her, as if she could do no wrong because she was sooo cute. Such BS – we know a person has to have a mental problem if they're molesting children – how can any mental disorder be a defense in this situation? We'll see if a jury will fall in love with this ugly, bloated white guy, as they fell in love with that sexy blond teacher, and let him off, too. I really hope they see that yes, pedophiles have mental problems, but they still need to go to jail for what they do.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I agree. Lady justice needs to be blind .. not dumb.

      June 12, 2012 at 08:49 | Report abuse |
  28. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    This is a prime example of what's wrong with deifying anyone. Giving anyone (ie: Sports figures, entertainers, clergy, etc..) a pedestal empowers them and weakens us. Treat all as equals, even if it seems some are more equal than others ... if they're worthy they can stand up to the same scrutiny the rest of us face.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. cnnmembuh

    The defense team realizes they're screwed and this is the only straw at which they can grasp. His testimony will be awkward, to say the least.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. South Guy

    Poor guy, he's got issues. Fair enough. Put him in a cell with a really big guy that also has "issues". Let them work things out, "together".

    June 12, 2012 at 08:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Joann

    I guess he didn't get enough attention when he was a child....shame on his parents.....BLAH BLAH BLAH....Give me a freakin' break. He definitely has a mental disorder, but this is not it. He's just a pervert and needs to be put away....

    June 12, 2012 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Sarah

    My husband is a psychologist: People who are histrionic wouldn't be able to see that they are or identify it as a problem, just as narcissists wouldn't either (wiki personality disorders); personality disorders are ingrained; you can't distinguish it for yourself as it is how you have always been. Therapy may help alleviate the symptoms but it doesn't resolve the ingrained condition. It is fixed unfortunately. It can't be used as a defense for a crime anyway; So it is irrelevant. I have a good friend that is histrionic. life is hell for her. I never know what frame of mine she will be in. But I know deep down she is very creative and interesting; so I keep my distance and enjoy the good moments when I can. I would never say to her face what she is. She has a habit of taking her clothes off around repair guys! It is pretty absurd. I have to apologize for her (without her knowing) often. She finds Sandusky abhorrent! She would probably be the crazy person that would scream and rant at him if she saw him in the street! He definitely is "sick"! But, saying a serial killer is "obsessive compulsive" (another personality disorder) wouldn't get him off the hook, and nor would histrionic in this case! Absurd!!

    June 12, 2012 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Sarah

    Ps- by the end of this trial, those around him that protected him, their names will be mud! I am sure after hearing another 10 boys testify – everyone will be sick to their stomachs!

    June 12, 2012 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. hillbillynwv

    After he is sentenced to life in prison, I hope an inmate beats him to death with a broomstick like Jeffrey Dahmer.

    June 12, 2012 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. riamb60

    People who rape and murder are mentally ill, they are not save to be out in society.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. bolt

    If he gets off because of mental illness every pedo. Will call their lawyer and try the same t rick. The lawyers should be responsible if he does it again.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. bossman

    You are all fat and poor. The liberal media is distorting everything. We need a change. Romney for president 2012. #romneyforpresident2012

    June 12, 2012 at 09:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. NittanyLion

    Hogwash. No mental illness, HPD, God or Satan made this monster rape those boys. He chose to do it over and over and over again. Why is he even out on bail?

    June 12, 2012 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. asdf

    This article was not very clear:

    Is he pleading not guilty by reason of mental disorder? Or is he pleading not guilty because he didn't rape anybody, and this disorder just explains why he's such a creep?

    June 12, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Elsie

      He seems to be claiming that he's not guilty, but this personality disorder made him do all those things that are being used against him as evidence, like writing creepy love letters to the boys (whom he totally didn't touch!) and phoning them hundreds of times (for no reason! really!) and showering with them and engaging in "wrestling" and "horseplay" with them (but not in a bad way!).

      It's about as convincing as a toddler denying cookie-jar theft while wiping crumbs from its mouth.

      June 12, 2012 at 22:22 | Report abuse |
  40. Chops

    He's only going to use "mental disorder" as a defense because he got caught! Up until that moment, he would certainly argue that he was 100% normal and healthy.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Beezy

    I love how in this country everything is a disease or someone elses fault now a days. If you are fat, you are not lazy you have a condition. If u fail at the highest office in the land it was president bush's fault.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. scottro

    I don't give a $hi+ if he has this disorder or not. Try him on the evidence.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Annie

    Why do we always assume that people who commit horrific acts against the defenseless are mentally ill? Looking at the comments here, even though some think the histrionic personality disorder defense is a crock, they still think Sanduskey is sick. Truth is, some people are just plain evil. That's why we hold people responsible for their actions. That's why we punish criminals. Regardless of what Sanduskey's urges and desires may be, he did not have to act on them. Victimizing innocent children was a deliberate conscious choice on his part, and I think he deserves to have his private parts gnawed off by weasels, so there!

    June 12, 2012 at 09:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Rick

    AND ................ so what?

    June 12, 2012 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Nurse143

    the letters are also consistent with serial pedophilia; he thought he wouldn't get caught and still thinks he did nothing wrong because he believes his actions were motivated by love. Having a personality disorder (ALLEGEDLY), even if it makes him emotional or allows him to believe everything was consensual, does not remove the criminal burden of the illegal actions if they are true.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Mark

    Are Sandusky's lawyers now going to claim that because of his supposed HPD he doesn't know the difference between right and wrong? This is going to be a very flimsy defense in my opinion but I guess the lawyers are just trying to win some sympathy in the hope of getting a reduced sentence.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. AntiNarcissist

    What they described in the article is NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is the most evil disorder that can happen. Think of that gay who dismembered his partner – no emotions, no love – just need to satisfy his need to get attention. Those type of people need to be locked up in prison for life.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Billofwa

    When you got nothing else....

    June 12, 2012 at 11:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Rlg

    Putting the blame on the victims is disgusting. The blame belongs to Jerry Sandusky and nowhere else. He deserves to be behind bars for the rest of his life so he that he can't harm anyone else ever again. He's ruined too many lives as it is.

    June 12, 2012 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. news

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    June 12, 2012 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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