Pleading Temporary Insanity: A worrying truth, or is there a bit of madness in all of us?

It’s true that during your lifetime you may experience mild episodes of madness, from a second of road rage; from the car that cut you off that morning, or the consent need to check you have switched off your hair straightens before you leave the house.

We all have small traits in that respect which makes us normal, but what if these impulses are more aggressive and turn violent, and if your control over these impulses cannot be recognisable?

Is temporary Insanity a true form of mental illness, or is this term used loosely by the justice system today to escape possible conviction?

The term temporary insanity is quite self-explanatory; a “moment of madness”.  But at what point does this temporary insanity shift to become a problem?

Often health professionals are able to diagnose other types of mental illness, such as : Schizophrenia, bi-polar, stress etc, as there are symptoms. But unless the person or member of their immediate social circle is aware there is a problem, then the problems can go unnoticed and worst still untreated.

Could temporary insanity be triggered by Posttraumatic stress disorder? This can occur in a person after they have been exposed to an event causing psychological distress. This usually starts from approximately three months after an event; as recollections of the events trauma still haunts the person, but this can last for months, even years. (Videbeck, S).

It can be argued that this could be the case, as unexpected life changes can alter your whole outlook on life; make you loose you’re inhabitations, responsibility, and even your moral judgement. There must be a trigger, which allows this behaviour even though the person perhaps has never experienced, or will ever experience this behaviour again.

I read in the Guardian recently, where a father from a well brought up background and had a good loving very happy family, just suddenly had an outburst and attacked his wife; In their family home leaving her for dead.

Fortunately for his wife, their teenage son was upstairs and saw what had happened through his window. He called the ambulance and his father was locked up for attempted murder.

With cases like these you have to ask yourself, what are the other factors? Behaviour like this doesn’t just alter for no reason. In this case the husbands mother and sister recently died, which must have brought on traumatic stress.

Behaviour and its change cannot occur in isolation from the environment in which they occur. (Morrison, V., Bennett, P. 2009)

Having no history of violence, being such a sweet and gentle man, his wife; whom he’d just tried to kill, dropped all charges. They all carried on as normal after that, but the cracks within the family still remained, and his son; who had seen the attack went off the rails. (Olden, M. Guardian, 2011).

So what happens in cases like these? According to the law the father isn’t a threat to society; as the police have released him. He is also deemed mentally stable, as he has just carried on as though nothing has happened, at home with his family? Surely if this unexplained phenomenon has happened once, there’s a possibility it could happen a second time. Or is pleading temporary insanity a get out clause in some cases?

At what point can you determine this as being a mental illness and treated, to needing more analysing on each individual case in their own merits, to determine whether someone is dangerous to society or not.

It seems like there is a very fine line.


Videbeck, S. L., (2010). Nursing practice for Psychiatric disorders. In Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010. Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Pleading Temporary Insanity: A worrying truth, or is there a bit of madness in all of us?

  1. Issues like this seem akin to those of invoking the defence of ‘homicidal parasomnia behaviour’ – claiming to have murdered when sleepwalking, and so occasionally being pardoned from blame. In both cases it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide support for the individual who has committed the crime. However, should enough evidence accumulate to support the defendant’s claims (evidence of recent emotional trauma or recorded sleep disturbances in a clinic etc), and they are acquitted of the crime, the issue lies in how they are subsequently treated. After all, you cannot claim to have murdered as a result of psychiatric disturbance and continue to live as before after acquittal, with the potential to harm still beneath the surface. The supporting article used for this blog does not mention the treatment of the perpetrator post-attack, as he would undoubtedly have been assigned mandatory intensive therapy, probably including an in-patient stay at a psychiatric institution.
    The issue of whether or not individuals should always be held accountable for crimes in these situations is debatable; however, all of those claiming to have acted this way due to psychiatric issues should be given appropriate, intensive treatment. Blame may be avoided, but the potential to harm again could remain without treatment.

    • You right the article did not go into detail about any treatment, but does make reference to a psychological report; The report suggested temporary insanity.

      You are going by the assumption that he was assessed and treated as having a mental health illness, but there is no suggestion of this by the courts as he was charged with attempted murder, and actually sentenced to grievous bodily harm after his wife made a plea.

      It’s fair to say that the father would or certainly should of had the correct treatment, but the tone of the article suggests this is not the case here; this is my question here, does temporary insanity exist?

      The article is written from the sons point of view, the fact that he isn’t at all sympathetic or offers an explanation for his father actions, as well as commenting “If I mentioned the incident, he would almost roll his eyes as if to say: ‘You’re not going to bring that up again,'” (The Guardian, 2011). Suggests the reasoning behind the incident was never actually rectified and family members are still left confused about the whole ordeal.

      It brings little comfort reading this article, as the father was lucky to have escaped a life sentence.
      How many other people who have experienced the same trauma are yet the behave this way? or how many people have been convicted of temporary insanity such as this, but will never show signs or symptoms of this again? It is not fair to lock up one person and not the next.

      It is a worrying truth.

  2. The plea of temporary insanity is a controversial issue. As temporary insanity reflects the generally accepted concept that an individual should ‘avoid liability for the commission of a crime because at the time of the crime’ as they were diminished in mental capacity and could ‘not appreciate the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts.’
    An example, which I heard in the news last year, was the questionable case against
    Woody Will Smith who was accused of murdering his wife, in his defence, he claimed that an excessive intake of caffeine rendered him temporarily insane. According to the DSM-IV, a caffeine overdose is defined as more than 300 milligrams (which both cause and worsen anxiety); Smith ingesting over 400 milligrams a day during that period. He overdosed on caffeine to avoid falling asleep, as he feared his wife would leave him (and take his two children).
    It is hard to pinpoint what was the underlying causation of his outburst whether it was fear of loosing his children, the overdose on caffeine or a mixture of both.

    Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR.(2000)
    American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Publication

  3. Temporary insanity does not always occur within cases which the sufferer being charged of a crime, as cases have occurred which were a lot less severe but totally unexplainable on the behalf of the participant. This I am aware of as it has actually occurred to me, where I did actions I had no action over and sometimes were totally unaware of doing until informed from friends. However, whether all these cases where temporary insanity was pleaded were true is to be seen, and is more likely that it is just a get out clause. This will most likely just be Type 1 errors made as reviewed by Rosenhan (1973) being made by the courts as the person being charged is trying to find a way out of the crime they have committed. In conclusion, temporary insanity can occur, however, it is most likely more often used as an escape clause.

    Rosenhan, D.L. (1973) On being sane in insane places.

  4. The assumption that PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) being a legitimate cause of sudden bursts of ‘temporary insanity’ is actually far from the truth: the vast majority of victims of PTSD suffer much more internalised behaviour such as reclusiveness, crippling flashbacks and anxiety attacks (Figley, 1985). To suggest that this may be an underlying factor, although understandable due to the violent nature of the cause, is actually inaccurately reflecting the overwhelming reactions victims usually suffer. Although PTSD has been known to lead to more aggressive behaviour in some victims, this is mostly of a subtle nature, such as an aggressive tone of voice or stance. the only real instances where genuine violence has been seen in PTSD victims is usually amongst children who are not developed enough to internalise their feelings.

    Figley, C. R. (1985) Trauma and its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bristol, PA, USA. Brunner/Mazel Publishing.

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