Amok - Definition And Symptoms

Amok - Definition And Symptoms

Amok is a form of frenzied madness that is observed in some Asian countries, Malaysia in particular. During their murderous rampage, the person runs through the streets and physically attacks all those who are in their path.

The term "to run amok" is rooted in the Malay word, mengamok, roughly meaning "murderous frenzy". Amok is a psychiatric illness that refers to a form of murderous madness in which a person can suddenly find themselves. The term also refers to the specific behaviour of this person, who suddenly embarks on a frantic and deadly run in which they insult, wound, and even kill all people that they meet. Whilst the condition can be thought of as a culture-bound syndrome, the violent behaviour it triggers can be a result of a psychotic, personality or mood disorder. 

While the individual “runs amok,” the person is disconnected from reality. In Malay culture, it is thought that the individual is possessed by a vengeful spirit. Amok is often considered a form of homocide, resulting in suicide as the person often ends up being killed during their rampage, whilst causing multiple injuries and even fatalities amongst those around them.  

Amok is an unpredictable illness that only affects men. The sufferer does not necessarily have to have a predisposition to psychiatric disorders to be affected.

Writer Stefan Zweig described the behaviour of a man who is suddenly afflicted by Amok in his novella that shares the same name.

What is Amok?

In the West, Amok is thought of as a psychiatric illness. In Asian cultures, however, it is considered more of a spell. Those who “run amok” are supposedly possessed by vengeful spirits who have been bewitched in order to punish them.

According to ethnologists and ethnopsychiatrists who have studied the phenomenon in Asian countries, Amok is triggered by major frustrations. A man who has been humiliated, or who has experienced public defeat or disgrace, can crumble under the weight of society and traditions and get caught up in this furious form of madness and self-destruction.

Ethnopsychiatry to Better Understand Amok

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In a 2013 edition of Philosophy Magazine, psychologist and essayist Tobie Nathan wrote a paper on Amok. In it, he drew parallels between those who suffer from Amok and mass shooters in the United States. “In Malay beliefs, the kriss, a ritual weapon handed down from father to son, must receive prayers, offerings, oil and fat. Sometimes a descent neglects to honour their duty to their ancestors. The weapon then seizes the hand of the imprudent young man. It is considered a real possession and not simply madness,” said Nathan.

How can amok be treated?

Amok has been associated with conditions such as psychosis, bipolar disorder and delusions and thus will require similar treatment. If a person is affected by the characteristics of running amok, it is first required that they are seen by a psychiatric expert in order to make the correct diagnosis. If the person is severely affected by homocidal or suicidal tendencies, involuntary psychiatric hospitalization is usually an option. However, this would be required only in the most extreme cases resulting from the aforementioned conditions.

Since the frenzy associated with amok can often be triggered by a sudden loss, followed by an intense episode of depression and a brooding process, antidepressant medication can be used as an effective treatment for possible roots of the problem. Such cases can include a loss of a loved one, a job, bankruptcy or even a loss of a sense of power. The patient can then be monitored by a doctor over a six-to-eight-week period in order to ensure treatment is taking effect and the individual is receiving adequate care to deal with the condition. 

Abbie Marshall
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