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Affluenza is a bogus medical disorder for rich kids

Turns out that being given loads of money by your parents won’t stand up in court as a reason for breaking the law

It’s been reported today that Texan teenager Ethan Couch has dropped his ‘affluenza’ defence and will be returning to the States to face charges in the coming days.

For those not familiar with the Couch case: a primer. Couch was given ten years probation in a juvenile court in the USA after being caught drunk driving. The teenager was speeding and not in possession of a legal license when he lost control over his car and crashed into a group of pedestrians. Four people died, and a further nine people were injured, some seriously.

Couch came from a wealthy Texan family and his defence lawyers argued, successfully, that he shouldn’t be sent to prison for his crime because he has a condition called ‘affluenza’. Basically, Couch shouldn’t be punished for his crimes like a normal person, because his wealthy parents had never taught him the difference between right and wrong. 

If you’re thinking this sounds like an unbelievably bogus excuse, you’re right. Affluenza isn’t actually recognized as a valid medical condition by most psychologists. Despite the fact that Couch essentially escaped justice for his crimes, this still wasn’t good enough for the teen – he skipped probation and fled to Mexico with his mother, where they hid out for a bit before being busted by a pizza delivery guy who tipped them off to the US authorities.

Now that Couch has dropped his affluenza defence and is preparing to return to the US, he could spend up to forty years in prison. Given that mandatory minimum sentencing means that prisoners (who usually arent so privileged) wind up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for being in possession of a joint, the teenager probably won’t wind up getting much sympathy from the American public.

To find out whether affluenza is actually a real thing, we spoke to Dr Sheila Keegan, a chartered psychologist. [Spoiler: it’s not.]

"I think that it's a very convenient excuse, but really nothing more. I suppose to some extent there are families where there isn't a clear disinction between right and wrong. But being rich isn't an excuse for behaving badly and breaking the law."

I ask Dr Keegan whether there's ever a circumstance where affluenza could be seen as a recognised psychological disorder. "Many psychological disorders aren't really fixed things, they’re just ways of describing people's behaviour. So these categorisations can be very fluid, and in practice we’re always making judgements about whether people are pathological and hoping we're right". 

Dr Keegan is wary of labels in general. "I’m a bit cynical about all these new disorders which get added all the time, like affluenza. Just sticking a label on someone and giving it a fancy name isn’t necessarily helpful. In my opinion, unless this person has a pathological disorder which makes them completely incapable of distinguishing right from wrong – like a sociopath – it’s unlikely that simply being rich would mean they can't differentiate right from wrong”. 

Rather, Dr Keegan points the finger at bad parenting. “My experience is that children who haven’t been taught the difference between right and wrong won’t understand the consequences of their behaviours. If you come from an environment where kicking someone or beating them up is normal, you'll continue to do that behaviour unchecked.”

Unfortunately for rich kids everywhere, looks like your lawyers are going to have to dream up another another pseudo-condition to get you out of jail.