DALLAS—A Texas teenager sentenced to probation for causing a fatal drunken-driving crash was taken into custody late Monday in Mexico, where authorities believe he and his mother fled after he may have violated terms of his probation. Ethan Couch, now 18, received the light sentence in 2013 after his attorneys said he suffered from “affluenza,” which drew widespread ridicule.
Here’s an explanation of the term:
What Is Affluenza?
The term was used by a psychologist testifying for the defense during the sentencing phase of Couch’s trial in juvenile court. The expert argued that Couch’s wealthy parents had coddled and pampered their son into a sense of irresponsibility—a condition the expert termed “affluenza”—to the point that Couch never developed a sense of right and wrong, or suffered any repercussions for bad behavior.
What Do Medical Professionals Think?
Affluenza is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation during Couch’s trial attracted backlash from some medical experts and families of the four people killed in the crash. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the association, is widely used by mental health professionals and makes no mention of affluenza. Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, said there are some similarities to the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. A person with that disorder feels entitled and doesn’t care about other people’s needs, he said. But he noted that U.S. law doesn’t recognize narcissism as a legitimate defense.
Where Does the Term Come From?
The term “affluenza” was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book, “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It’s since been used to describe a condition in which children—generally from richer families—have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol. Affluenza appears to have entered the pop culture lexicon as a combination of two words: affluent and influenza. A website called The Affluenza Project bills itself as a resource for understanding the effects of money on relationships. Various books on the subject theorize that affluence often doesn’t translate into happiness or that it leads to overconsumption and a growing sense of alienation and distress.
Has Affluenza Been Used in Other Legal Cases?
It’s unclear whether the term has been invoked in other cases, but John Convery with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said the underlying argument made by Couch’s attorneys—that being raised in a dysfunctional family contributed to his actions—were similar to those used in many criminal cases. He said the attorneys’ error was invoking a pop culture term that was quickly seized by the media. Although the judge who sentenced Couch was criticized, Convery said the Texas juvenile system weighs on the side of probation rather than incarceration, and “the overarching question for the judge in a juvenile case is what’s in the best interest of the child.”