The decision to continually portray mental illness in pop culture for cheap, scary thrills and to avoid giving motivation for villains beyond “the crazy” has consequences. Those consequences are primarily felt by us, our loved ones, and our communities. When people tell me I’m “reading too much” into the number of times I’ve seen a mental health condition as the only motive for being a murderer on the latest Crime Drama, I want to ask them if they’ve ever considered why I don’t tell them what my diagnosis is. The only time I see “me” on TV is as a murderer, and that has directly influenced my decisions about disclosing, about seeking mental health services, and about talking to my family and friends about my diagnosis. And in that, I am by no means alone.
The common perception of a “crazy” person is a violent person, a stereotype that is not supported by facts. Two UK Studies, one conducted in the ’90s, the other in the ’00s, show that only 10% of convicted murderers in England and Wales were found to have a mental illness. Other studies have shown that people with mental health conditions, especially those considered to be “major,” are 2.5 to 3 times more likely to be the victim of violent crimes—a fact that is at the center of some of the comedy that David Granirer uses to highlight issues related to stigma against people with mental health conditions.
What studies do show about the link between violent crimes—here defined as “threatening, hitting, fighting, or otherwise hurting another person”—and people with mental health conditions has far less to do with having a mental health diagnosis, and far more to do with our access to care, our support in our communities, and whether or not we’re abusing alcohol or other types of drugs. That last thing also strongly influences whether or not the presumably “sane” commit violent crimes. There are currently very few calls for prohibition in Canada, the US, and the UK, but there have been calls to lock up people with “dangerous” mental health conditions, even if they haven’t committed a crime.
The main reason people with mental health conditions give for not seeking help, or not seeking help sooner, is the stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis. When the only depictions we see of mental illness are people who “aren’t taking their medication,” or of the media hounding female celebrities for having the crazy, admitting to ourselves or to others that we have intrusive thoughts, that we’re depressed, that we hear voices, that we’re suicidal, that we feel persecuted, that we feel under attack by our minds, is increasingly difficult.
Again and again, this stigma has real life consequences. Pop culture depictions of crazy mothers remind parents with mental health conditions that if they seek help, they too could have their children taken away—thus leading them to not seek needed help and support for their families, assuming that support is available in the first place. When “crazy” women in pop culture are manipulative liars or sexually obsessed liars, it’s that much harder for women with mental health conditions to be believed when they report their abuse or rape.
Within 25 seconds of arriving on the scene, Vancouver RCMP officers used their tasers on Robert Dziekanzki. He was dead within minutes. Their justification for using multiple taser shots on an unarmed man who wasn’t threatening them, including after they had already handcuffed him, was that he appeared mentally ill and thus was obviously dangerous.
Howard Hyde’s wife called the police for help, as one is told to do if a family member needs psychiatric help. He died in police custody as they disregarded a doctor’s request that they bring Hyde back to the hospital rather than keep him in jail.
Ashley Smith was 15 when she was jailed for throwing crab apples at a postman. She died in jail at 19, after repeated suicide attempts, because the guards were told not to enter her cell unless she stopped breathing. Her suicide attempts were not taken seriously by correctional officers, instead treated as a form of attention-seeking that needed to be punished.
The last time I wrote about Howard Hyde’s murder, I was informed that he was to blame for his own death, because apparently all people who don’t take their medication, for whatever reason, deserve to be handcuffed and left to die in a cell. Because all people with mental health conditions are exactly the same: they’re violent, they’re irrational, and they’re a danger to society. We know this, because we see it again and again in pop culture, and because the few media reports that involve someone with a mental illness committing crimes are sensationalized and repeated, while crimes against people with mental health conditions only seem to get media attention when a police inquiry is called.
Let’s start letting the facts get in the way of the “good” story.
- WillFindHope at Behind the Facade: July’s Mental Health Blog Carnival: Stigma & Discimination (This post links to several others)
- s.e. smith at Tigerbeatdown: The Madman In the Woods: Mental Illness As Boogeyman
- Lol Butterfield at The Social Issue: “As a child, I didn’t know what stigma meant – but I certainly knew how it felt”
- Jennifer Gibson at BrainBlogger: Stigma Influences Seeking Mental Health Care
- Caroline Davies at The Guardian: TV Dramas give misleading view of mental illness, claims report
- John Bonnor at Rabble: Psychiatric survivors continue to fight against the stigma of mental illness