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Kony 2012 Director: What is Brief Reactive Psychosis or Brief Psychotic Disorder?

Kony 2012 Director: What is Brief Reactive Psychosis or Brief Psychotic Disorder?According to news reports earlier today, the Kony 2012 director Jason Russell, 33, was “hospitalized last week in San Diego after witnesses saw him running through streets in his underwear, screaming incoherently and banging his fists on the pavement.” His wife now says he’s been diagnosed with brief reactive psychosis, which is technically called “brief psychotic disorder.”

Brief psychotic disorder could be most simply thought of as a form of short-term schizophrenia, since many of the symptoms of the disorders are exactly the same. The primary difference is that in a brief psychotic disorder, the psychosis is less than 30 days.

Let’s delve more into brief reactive psychosis and talk about how one “gets it” (don’t worry, it’s not catching).

Brief Psychotic Disorder is characterized by the presence of one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized speech (e.g., frequent derailment or incoherence)
  • Grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior

The duration of an episode of brief psychosis is at least one day but less than one month, with eventual full return to previous level of functioning. It is most often found in adults in their late 20s or early 30s.

Generally, you might make this diagnosis over a diagnosis of schizophrenia because the psychosis hasn’t yet reached 30 days. Once you get past that one month mark, however, a diagnosis of schizophrenia would usually be more appropriate.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV) is silent on the causes of this disorder (as it is generally for all mental disorders). But the article claims that “extreme stress” was the cause of it in Russell:

“The preliminary diagnosis he received is called brief reactive psychosis, an acute state brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration,” Danica Russell said. “Though new to us, the doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks.

“Even for us, it’s hard to understand the sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention — both raves and ridicules, in a matter of days.”

While I don’t discount Danica Russell’s beliefs, nor the explanation she was given by his doctors, the truth is that — like most mental disorders — we really don’t know what causes brief reactive psychosis. After examining the research on the causes of brief psychotic disorder, I have to say there’s just not a whole lot there, because it’s such a rare and uncommon disorder. There are no lab tests for it, nor other medical procedures that can tell you with any certainty that X has caused it.

I believe that Jason Russell’s doctors do a disservice to the complexity of mental disorders and the people who suffer them by suggesting a cause is readily known when, in truth, there’s no way they could make such a determination. I know doctors don’t like to say, “We don’t know what caused it, but it might’ve been…” or, “We don’t know what caused it, but the good news is that we have a lot of treatments that seem to work in most people…” Yes, these are more nuanced and complex explanations, yet they are so vitally important to ensuring we don’t “dumb down” mental disorders to the point of repeating ignorance.

We don’t really know what causes brief psychotic disorder — in Jason Russell or anyone else.

But we do wish him a speedy and complete recovery.

Read the news story: Wife: ‘Kony 2012’ director suffers from psychosis

Kony 2012 Director: What is Brief Reactive Psychosis or Brief Psychotic Disorder?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Kony 2012 Director: What is Brief Reactive Psychosis or Brief Psychotic Disorder?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Mar 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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