16 Apr 2022


The psychological disorders: Mental illness, insanity and incompetence

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The terms incompetence, insanity and mental illness are all distinct psychological disorders, especially before a court of law. They do not refer to the same condition in psychology. Incompetence refers to the ability of a defendant to appear at the trial and understand the proceedings of the court. For the case of insanity, it is about the defendant not being held responsible for the actions of crime that he or she did. The insanity means the defendant cannot be liable for the actions of crime committed. A person may be competent enough to appear at trial in the court, but still be pronounced insane hence unable to hold responsibility for the criminal actions committed (Lee, 2014). Therefore, one can be pronounced legally competent and insane at the same time. 

Mental illness is a broad, substantial disorder of thought, mood, and behavior that affected an individual at the time of doing the crime and tampered with their judgment. However, a mentally ill person still retains the ability to understand and appreciate the wrongful nature of their behavior or action (Reid, 2015). For the case of insanity, the individual is unable to understand and appreciate the wrongful nature of their behavior or action. Therefore, while insanity and incompetence can be used as a defense in a court of law, mental illness cannot be a defense in court.

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Another difference is that incompetence of a person is determined at the start of the case in court, while insanity and mental illness are arguments presented by the defense as the case proceeds. It has to be understood that one cannot be declared legally insane or mentally ill if they are legally incompetent (Reisner, Piel & Makey, 2013). This is because a legally incompetent person cannot appear at trial hence the case for such an individual does not proceed.


Lee, J.R. (2014). The Difference Between "Competency" and "Sanity". Psychology Today , Retreved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/so-sue-me/201411/the-difference-between-competency-and-sanity on 8/7/2016.

Reid, B. (2015). Incompetency and Insanity: Public Policy Issues Are Inadequately Addressed.  Ethics & Critical Thinking Journal 2015 (3).

Reisner, A. D., Piel, J., & Makey, M. (2013). Competency to stand trial and defendants who lack insight into their mental illness.  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online 41 (1), 85-91.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 16). The psychological disorders: Mental illness, insanity and incompetence.


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