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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Criminalization of Mental Illness in the Media

Kim Meier

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 7

law and Order: Criminal Intent is one of many spinoffs of the popular television crime drama Law and Order. The show presents a unique perspective by telling stories from the point of view of the criminal, from inception to execution. This allows for deeper character development of each episode’s antagonist, and a closer relationship between the criminal and the audience, which has the potential to lead viewers astray by conveying negative attitudes or flawed information about people who commit crimes. The producersers of Criminal Intent, however, endeavour to promote accuracy in the realm of mental health. The series’ protagonist, Detective Bobby Goren, is a knowledgeable and empathetic character who understands and relates to mental illness: Goren’s mother has schizophrenia, and he visits with her weekly.

To keep its facts straight, Criminal Intent employs a former forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, as a script consultant. Dietz acts as a psychologist for the characters, diagnosing behaviours presented to him by the writers. He concedes that crime dramas such as Criminal Intent showcase a high incidence of people with mental disorders as criminals, but he strives to ensure honest portrayals of people with mental disorders in the entertainment world.1

So what is the incidence of mentally ill criminals on television? In a study of 14 prime-time dramas that contained at least one character with mental illness, 10 shows depicted serious crime associated with mental illness—and the diagnoses of these illnesses were typically generic, vague and undefined.2 Most of this crime was attributed as the direct result of the mental illnesses. Another study conducted on 184 prime-time television programs found that in a two-week period violent crimes had been committed by 3.2% of all characters. When the rate of violent crime carried out by characters with mental illness was examined, however, this number jumped to 30.2%3 These crimes included murder, rape, robbery and assault. Again, the illnesses were fairly generic, most of them being indefinable or attributed to psychosis. In daytime soap operas, more than two-thirds of the characters who have a mental illness are criminals.4

Studies on the representation of mental illness in news media have shown high proportions of reports linking mental illness with crime. One study noted that, of people with mental illnesses portrayed in television news shows, 65% were linked to violent crimes.5 Studies of newspaper reports have shown similar results: mental illness linked to crime ranges from 46%6 to 83%7 of all articles related to mental illness. In a telephone interview of 1,022 adults 18 years and older conducted by the US-based National Mental Health Association in 2000, half of the respondents categorized mentally ill characters portrayed in the media as “drug addicts, alcoholics, and criminals.”8

If we consider that our media purportedly reflects our reality, it may seem that a very high proportion of people with mental illnesses are criminals. Howaccurate is this? The truth is that these numbers are way off the mark. In fact, the crime rate among people being treated for mental illness is the same as the crime rate among the general population in North America: less than 4%.4 And generally speaking, most of the crimes are not of the nature depicted on television. For example, in a 2005 report by the BC Justice Review Task Force on street crimes in Vancouver and chronic offenders, they found that the most common offences committed by people with mental health problems are thefts under $5,000, assaults and breaches of court orders.9 In the same vein, note the rate of mental illness among criminals: in Australia, the prevalence rate of mental illness among homicide offenders is less than 5%, but among the general population, it is approximately 20%.7 Since truth is so different from fiction, why is it distorted so much in the entertainment and news media? In terms of primetime dramas and movies it may simply be easiest to play on an already held stereotype of the ‘criminally deranged.’ For example, the entire Batman series—comics, TV shows, movies— is based on having Batman fighting criminally insane opponents. The antagonists have been created to fit textbook descriptions of their respective disorders. The Joker has antisocial personality disorder; Two-Face is plagued by a dissociative identity; the Riddler is obsessive-compulsive; and the Mad Hatter struggles with bipolar disorder. These villains are easy to work with when they come in nice little packages based on stereotypes. Whether or not viewers buy into the stereotypes doesn’t matter— to be dramatically effective, the stereotypes just need to be recognized.

It’s not rare for one to accuse the news media of distorting the truth, selecting stories that are exciting or that provoke reaction from viewers, and sensationalizing their reports. However, this doesn’t make it acceptable. Misrepresenting mental illness in a negative light is as serious as racism, sexism or any other type of discrimination—except that it goes undetected.

Media will continue to criminalize mental illness only as long as we—the audience—allow it to continue. What can be done? Pay attention when you sit down to your favourite TV show, catch a movie or watch the news. Speak up if you notice something that offends you. Write to the production companies, TV or radio stations, companies whose advertisements are seen or heard during the program, local newspapers, or anyone else who will listen. Explain to them the negative impact of unfairly criminalizing an already marginalized group of people.

About the author

Kim is an undergraduate student in cognitive science at Simon Fraser University, currently on a co-op term at Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

  1. The Center for Reintegration (2003). Behind the Scenes – Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Retrieved January 18, 2006, at reint/community/ci.asp.
  2. Wilson, C., Nairn, R., Coverdale, J. et al. (1999). Mental illness depictions in prime-time drama: Identifying the discursive resources. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry33(2), 232-39.
  3. Diefenbach, D.L. (1997). The portrayal of mental illness on prime-time television. Journal of Community Psychology25(3), 289-302
  4. Harden, M. & Harden, B. (2000). Wrestling with stereotypes. Sociology of Sport Online3(1). Retrieved February 10, 2006 at physed. v3i1a1.htm.
  5. Rose, D. (1998). Television, madness and community care. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology8(3), 213-28.
  6. Ward, G. (1997). Making headlines: Mental health and the national press. London: Health Education Authority.

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