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Antisocial personality disorder

4-minute read

What is antisocial personality disorder?

People with antisocial personality disorder tend to disregard authority, the law or the rights of other people. They may tell lies, behave aggressively or engage in illegal behaviour such as stealing, drug taking and violence.

People with antisocial personality disorder are said to lack remorse or a conscience, and generally do not feel sorry for their actions. They are sometimes called a 'sociopath' or a 'psychopath'.

What are the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder?

Some people with antisocial personality disorder are highly successful, intelligent and charming but exploit others for their own personal gain. Others are unable to maintain a job or stable home and end up in prison or in drug or alcohol facilities. They are generally unable to sustain meaningful relationships with others.

People with antisocial personality disorder tend to:

  • be irresponsible, fail to respect the law and repeatedly behave illegally
  • lie and deceive others
  • be impulsive and not plan ahead
  • be aggressive and antagonistic, causing conflict with others and within organisations
  • disregard their own or others' safety
  • lack remorse and not worry who they have hurt, mistreated or stolen from

Some people may show these behaviours occasionally and learn to overcome them, without having a personality disorder.

A personality disorder is a long-term pattern of behaviour, thinking and emotions that causes distress to the person and those around them, and makes it difficult to function in everyday life. People with personality disorders find it hard to change their behaviour or adapt to different situations. They have extreme thoughts and behaviours that make them act in ways they cannot control and make it hard to cope with day-to-day life.

People with antisocial personality disorder often have other mental illnesses as well, including anxiety and depression. They may also misuse alcohol and drugs.

Adults with antisocial personality disorder usually show signs of conduct disorder before they are 15. These include:

  • aggression toward people and animals
  • destroying property
  • being deceitful
  • stealing
  • serious rule-breaking

What are the causes of antisocial personality disorder?

The cause of this disorder is not entirely known. Some people with antisocial personality disorder come from families where personality disorders are common. Some come from families where violence and crime are common. Others have had childhoods in which they suffered abuse, trauma, neglect and lack of discipline. Some, however, come from normal and happy families.

How is antisocial personality disorder diagnosed?

Diagnosis involves a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist observing and interviewing the person with suspected antisocial personality disorder, and asking other people about their behaviour.

A diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder can only be made in an adult, not a child, and should be made only by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who gets to know the person over a period of time.

How is antisocial personality disorder treated?

People with this disorder rarely seek treatment, because they do not think there is anything wrong with the way they behave.

Treatment is usually given when individuals have entered the Corrective Services System and are forced to take part in treatment.

The main form of treatment for antisocial personality disorder is long-term psychological therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The therapy may focus on addressing specific problems, such as impulsivity, interpersonal difficulties and antisocial behaviour

There are no medicines specifically for antisocial personality disorder, although people are sometimes prescribed medicine to control other problems they may have, such as anxiety, depression or aggression.

Where can I get help?

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you'd like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) — call 1800 187 263.
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) — online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021

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