by Sian Ferguson
Like all people, I’m a mixture of contradictions. I hate hypermasculinity, but I love rugby. I hate butternut, but I love butternut soup. And I hate ableism, but I love Criminal Minds.
I’m not too sure why crime shows appeal to me, but they do. I don’t like cops, I have little faith in the so-called “justice” system, and I support the prison abolition movement. But at the same time, I love flopping down on my mom’s couch and watching Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods and the array of reality-based crime shows like Medical Detectives, Homicide Hunter and On The Case With Paula Zahn.
While I was binge-watching Criminal Minds, a scary thought occurred to me: the characters I relate to the most are the perpetrators.
It’s not that I’m violent — I can’t even play-fight with someone without feeling uncomfortable — but that I’m mentally ill.
That’s why I’ve decided to give Criminal Minds up: it represents people like me as violent, not as victims.
The representation of mentally ill or disabled people as violent has a long and problematic history. It’s what once allowed for us to be abused in asylums. Scratch that — it’s what still allows for us to be abused in asylums. Crime shows, horror movies and even news shows highlight the mental illnesses of “bad” people.
Despite this, it’s not true that neurologically atypical people are inherently violent. As research shows, “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
We’re way more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators, but crime shows suggest the opposite. This ableist attitude means mental illness is further stigmatized, which discourages mentally ill people from seeking the help we need.
It’s not just Criminal Minds. My sister’s cable program has three channels dedicated to crime shows, and both reality shows and fictional tales reflect the same ideas: that mentally ill people are dangerous people. “The suspect had a history of depression,” “She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt,” “She had PTSD after being abused,” are all descriptions that could apply to me. The suspect’s background of abuse and mental illnesses are always explored, but the victims are never discussed in the same light.
I’ve since decided to stop watching Criminal Minds because of the overwhelming guilt I feel when I watch it. Not only am I reminded of how I’m dangerously stereotyped, I enjoy watching those stereotypes. How can I be so entertained by something that perpetuates a dangerous myth about people like me?
Perhaps the nature of my mental illnesses is what lets me distance myself from the way mental illness is represented in shows. I have depression, PTSD, and anxiety — all fairly common, relatively understood illnesses. While psychologists have speculated that I might have Borderline Personality Disorder, the symptoms of BPD don’t match up to my experiences. My mental illnesses aren’t a walk in the park, but I don’t think I’m nearly as demonized as schizophrenics, sociopaths and psychotics, who are vilified even within ‘progressive’ mental health circles.
The representation of mental illnesses on crime shows does more than just perpetuate the idea that I’m dangerous. It also suggests that I’m neurotypical — which is possibly an even more harmful myth. For most of my family, the term “mental illness” evokes images of dangerous, delusional people. It’s hard for them to recognize my mental illnesses because I don’t seem dangerous, and I seem to have a good grip on reality. As a result, many of them don’t realize how much help and support I need, and many of them unintentionally downplay my trauma.
There are a few shows that get mental illness right, but they’re few and far between. In an episode of Law & Order called “Educated Guess,” the vulnerability of mentally ill people is explored. Natasha Lyonne plays Gia, a psychiatric patient with an apparent history of making false rape accusations. When someone claims they witnessed a rape in the hospital, Gia’s mother dismisses it as a part of her mental illnesses — but the team finds that Gia had been assaulted by her uncle from a very young age, showing how her mental illnesses made her vulnerable to abuse.
Even Criminal Minds humanizes schizophrenia — the beloved Dr. Spencer Reid is close to his mother, who has paranoid schizophrenia. In “Sex, Birth, Death,” Reid tells Derek Morgan that he knows what it’s like to be afraid of his own mind, referring to his worry that he’ll also have paranoid schizophrenia.
Related: 5 Phrases That Are Actually Ableist
These representations are invaluable. We need to be shown as human, as vulnerable, as potential victims of abuse. We also need to be shown as capable of happiness, and as humans who are worthy of the very oxygen they breathe. I’m starved for representation that accurately reflects me and doesn’t make me “afraid of my own mind.”
In the grander scheme of things, I doubt me avoiding Criminal Minds would do much to eradicate the stigma against mental illnesses. But I’ll stop watching it to ease the self-doubt and guilt I feel whenever I see myself reflected in one of the suspects. And maybe that’s a start.
Sian Ferguson is a queer freelance writer based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing deals with social justice, mental health, witchcraft, activism and more, and her work has been featured on various sites, including Everyday Feminism, Greatist, Matador Network, Ravishly and more. She’s also an editorial team member of the new literary journal, Type/Cast. You can follow her on Twitter and find all her work here.