I want to take this moment to talk about Criminal Minds. Yes, that TV show that never seems to go away. If you missed it, let me give you a rundown. Someone goes missing in [insert random town], is found dead by/through [insert horrific method] and the team hunts down [insert mentally sick individual]. There are variations, but you get the idea. In the show, the “perps,” as they call the criminals they catch, sometimes have tragic backstories of abuse and trauma. This is no doubt to garner some sympathy and add a level of complexity to an otherwise flat villain. The show makes you feel for the “mentally ill” person who is just “crying out for help.” But I would argue that these fictional depictions of mentally ill people hurt actual mentally ill people and increase the stigma around them.
For this argument, I am going to use a single episode in the show and a pretty disturbing one at that. In it, a woman abducts other women to drug them and make them her living dolls. The team responds because the dressed up bodies are found posed in various places. Posed in a way that, as they “analyze,” shows remorse. As the team hunts this woman down, they posit that she was abused as a child, which caused her to want to live out her childhood. This is where that story falls apart. Victims of abuse may be more prone to repeated abuse cycles, they may be prone to reverting to a sort of childlike state and they may suffer from PTSD. But this pattern of deadly dress up is not actually a cry for help from an abused and tormented mind. It is sadistic and psychopathic behavior. Granted, the abuse may have spurred the psychopathic tendencies, but that would invalidate the “remorse” that the team “analyzed.” Psychopaths and sociopaths don’t feel empathy and so they wouldn’t feel remorse. So abuse drove her to want to kidnap and drug women to make them living dolls, but how does this woman maintain her job as a nurse if her ability to function is so decreased that it reduces her reasoning and sense of reality that much?
Someone in her state would certainly not have the faculties to carefully plan the abduction of one woman — let alone multiple women. She would have to plan how not to get caught, when to grab the women, who to grab, where to keep them, where to dump them and when. This is a lot of planning for someone who just wants to revert to a lost childhood. So she is neither sadistically psychopathic, nor does she possess a severely addled mind. So what is she?
Clearly, what we see here is the culmination of fears about the mentally ill. Fears that they are lurking in society, behaving like people who might be a little bit “off,” but not enough to arouse suspicions. They kill and torture without reason or mercy, driven by the voices in their heads. That is another part of this show that is often played upon—schizophrenia. Once again, they fail to grasp what is most often the reality of being mentally ill: that mentally ill people are more dangerous to themselves than to anybody else.
We all seem to love stories about people who do horrible things, but our macabre interest is teaching people that these exceptions to the rule are the rule. If you do not have experience with someone who suffers from mental illness, you might believe that all people who go to therapy are crackpots who could kill someone without a second thought. You might believe that inhumane treatment is “necessary” and that they all need to be shut away. Even if your beliefs manifest themselves less extremely, just believing that someone could will away a deficiency in their brain or that being emotional shows weakness teaches people to hide away and suffer in silence. This does not result in the deaths of all the people around them, this results in the hurt they inflict upon themselves, sometimes even ending in suicide.
The depictions on Criminal Minds are wildly inaccurate and they do more than just entertain. They shade views about people who are needlessly suffering because we are quicker to run from them than to actually set up comprehensive systems to help them. The truth of the matter is that there are people who suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or paranoia who are far from violent and are simply people who have problems with chemicals in their brain. They pose no danger and are often not given the care that they need, but often times we would rather watch shows about how we imagine them than actually help them.