- A rare mental illness in which an afflicted person holds the delusion that they are dead, either figuratively or literally.
- In 69% of the cases of syndrome, the patient denies its self-existence, paradoxically 55% of the patients present delusions of immortality.
We have all heard someone say they are dead tired, but sufferers of walking corpse syndrome take it to a whole new level. Also known as the Cotard delusion after the French neurologist who first identified the rare mental illness, the afflicted believe that they have died. Despite this, most also believe themselves to be ‘immortal’ because they cannot die again. As you may expect, this delusion can be dangerous as sufferers engage in risky behaviour. Such was the case with Mademoiselle X – the patient Cotard initially treated. She presented insisting she was dead, that she was missing certain body parts (another common symptom of the afflicted) and that she was in Hell. She did not see any reason to eat given her current status and died of starvation shortly thereafter.
Beliefs held by patients can include: they don’t really exist, their insides are rotting, and they are bloodless or missing organs. Sometimes the onset of the delusion is preceded by a physical trauma resulting in an acquired brain injury. This is what happened to a Scottish man in 1996 after he was involved in a motorcycle accident in which his brain was damaged. He experienced a warped view of reality in which he had died and been dragged into Hell. He did not believe that he had been killed in the crash, but rather that he had died from AIDS or septicaemia. He got this notion after reading an article about an AIDS patient who had died of septicaemia (sufferers are also known to be prone to this sort of suggestible, hypochondriac behaviour).
In 2003, Greek psychiatrists reported a case involving a man who became convinced that he did not have a brain. This caused him such distress that he eventually attempted suicide in his home, an act that went unnoticed. In reality, the attempt failed but in the man’s distorted view of reality, upon waking up the suicide attempt had worked and he was, in fact, dead. Those same doctors also treated a 72-year-old woman who complained that all of her organs had melted and that she was dead. Interestingly no two cases of this fascinating syndrome ever seem to present identically. Most cases seem to involve some combination of most of the aforementioned symptoms; other patients frequent morgues or cemeteries or else seek isolation, withdrawing from the living; still others suffer paranoid persecutory delusions or other delusions for good measure. Some transpose their feeling of deadness onto others like the case of a 14-year-old boy who believed that not only he, but also every person, animal, plant and tree on Earth was dead and would be destroyed imminently.
In 2008, 52-year-old New York native Ms Lee came to believe that she had died and wish to be laid out in the morgue. The distressed Ms Lee accused paramedics who were trying to take her to the hospital of attempting to burn down her house. In 2009, Belgian doctors treated an 88-year-old man who claimed to be dead and was experiencing great anxiety that he had not been buried yet. The Belgian doctors also reported treating a 46-year-old female patient who told them that she had not eaten or used a bathroom in months, nor slept in years, her organs had putrefied, she had no blood and doctors who had monitored her heartbeat and declared it to be beating normally were lying to her for reasons unknown.
At times, the delusion seems to be brought about following a transplant. Swedish doctors reported two cases of this phenomenon. The first involved a 35-year-old female kidney transplant recipient. Upon awaking after the surgery she complained of her body feeling unfamiliar, a feeling of being shut off from the surrounding world, visual and auditory hallucinations, a conviction that she was dead and a sense of accompanying terror. The second case involved a 36-year-old male bone marrow transplant recipient who awoke screaming, feeling profound fear, demanding to know if he was dead and claimed that everyone around him was dangerous.
Currently, treatments for this unique and bizarre mental disease range from the pharmacological (antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers) to electroconvulsive therapy, with mixed results.