What Does It Mean to "Run Amok"?

The phrase "running amok" might conjure thoughts of a zany Jim Carrey movie or the wacky antics of some comedy troupe, but in actuality, it refers to a very unfunny medical condition.

"Amok" has been a recognized psychiatric condition since the 19th century.
"Amok" has been a recognized psychiatric condition since the 19th century.

In an article for the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Dr. Manuel St. Martin explains that today, few people outside of the psychiatric community are aware of the fact that "amok" is a "bona fide, albeit antiquated, psychiatric condition."

While in common usage "running amok" typically refers to an individual causing havoc while acting in an irrational manner, in psychiatry it "describes the homicidal and subsequent suicidal behavior of mentally unstable individuals that results in multiple fatalities and injuries to others," St. Martin says.

One of the author's chief points in the article is to show that although the term "running amok" originated about 200 years ago as an explanation for behavior among some isolated tribe members on remote islands, it has now been observed in societies all over the world. St. Martin also stresses that even today, little is understood about the people suffering from this condition, nor is much being done in terms of recognition and treatment that could help prevent ensuing violent episodes.

The complex world of psychiatry:

  • On average, it takes 10 years to diagnose bipolar disorder because it can occur at different times of life, has symptoms similar to other illnesses, and can come and go for unexplained reasons.

  • In the United States alone, at least 16 percent of the population will experience major depressive disorder in their lifetime.

  • There are 170 times more psychiatrists in high-income countries than in low-income nations.

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