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A ‘confused person’ is more of a misunderstood person

The person who cried out at Dam Square on Remembrance Day in 2010. For Michiel van der Wolf this marked the rise of a new phenomenon: that of ‘confused people’. Because since that Remembrance Day, the number of reports of ‘confused people’ in the Netherlands has increased rapidly in the statistics. But, Van der Wolf wonders in his inaugural lecture, is the confusion waxing or our understanding waning?

For anyone unfamiliar with the Damschreeuwer (the Dam Screamer): this was the man who disrupted the commemoration of the dead with a loud scream. This caused panic and the man in question was put on trial. He was given a 16-month sentence, eight of which were suspended. The media labelled him as ‘confused’ and a trend began.

On Monday 11 April, upon accepting the post of Professor of Forensic Psychiatry, Michiel van der Wolf will discuss the apparent increase in the number of ‘confused’ people. In his inaugural lecture ‘In de war van verwarring’ (In the confusion of confusion) he will show how the number of ‘confused’ people has continued to increase over the past ten years. Because this is how long the police have been keeping track of these reports. Van der Wolf will focus on the people who report these incidents and will ask the reverse: is it them that have grown in numbers rather than the confused people?

With the aid of the figures and cases, Van der Wolf will paint a picture of a society that is increasingly confused by confusion. And this concerns not only our misunderstood fellow human beings but also, more generally, intolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, incomprehension and a lack of control. ‘Because we want to control everything, there is more policy, more legislation, more enforcement and control, and this makes everything more expensive.’ This relates not only to how we deal with and treat confused people but also to other areas within forensic psychiatry. Van der Wolf will cover this overarching theme and the consequences in his inaugural lecture.

‘We can’t avoid all risks. Humans are simply too unpredictable for that.’

All that policy, legislation and enforcement will not necessarily make things better. Van der Wolf gives the example of how mistakes made in the treatment of people under a hospital order can have terrible repercussions. ‘If that happens, politicians demand that it should never be allowed to happen again. As a result, measures are taken that sometimes make the treatment worse, which is a shame because if you look at the figures, detention under a hospital order is actually quite successful. But,’ he warns, ‘without support no one will leave again.’

Telling that honest story is a task for academia, Van der Wolf continues. ‘We can’t avoid all risks. People are simply too unpredictable for that. We academics have to paint a realistic picture and keep asking questions and conducting research into this. And we must make sure our students are fully aware of this.’

‘Destrangement’ is part of the solution, says Van der Wolf. ‘Ensuring there is more understanding. You don’t have to call the police if you find your neighbour a bit odd. You can try that bit harder to understand him.’ He learned that from an early age. He grew up in a commune that took in people who were on the fringes of society. ‘Sometimes there’d be a schizophrenic man in the garden when I came home, who turned out to be waiting for my mother. But he also wanted a cheese sandwich, so I’d make him one.’

Michiel van der Wolf graduated cum laude in both psychology and law. He began his career in 2003 as an intern at secure psychiatric hospitals and experienced a turbulent period with some notorious recidivism. He received his PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2012 with a thesis on problems in the system of detention under hospital order. He has published a lot on topics at the intersection of behavioural science and criminal law. He will give his inaugural lecture on Monday 11 April. Follow the livestream of the inaugural lecture.

Photo: ANP

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