by Riam Griswold
It’s an clear fact that our media continually reflects the values and beliefs of much of our culture; though they will sometimes represent different interests and various groups in power, if a piece of media puts forth an idea (whether overtly or not), it’s safe to say that idea is widespread in society.
With that in mind, it’s worth it to discuss the media’s treatment of mental illness, neurodivergence, and other forms of disability.
The association of mental illness with violence is a pervasive one, and also entirely false. Numerous studies show that people with mental illnesses are radically more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that when they are violent, it’s almost always born of fear and an attempt to defend themselves. Yet if you looked at the portrayal of the mentally ill in the media, you’d come away with a very different picture.
To begin with, let’s consider the word “psycho.” Its meaning is ambiguous but very derogatory. Does it stand for psychotic, or psychopathic? No one seems to know, or to draw a line between the two anyway. Medically neither, at any rate, match the image of the maniacally laughing (mental illness again: mania is a state present in mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, and again not associated with violence) murderer chasing people around with an axe. Psychotic is used as a synonym for evil and violent, when all it in fact refers to is a mental state involving symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and lesser-known negative symptoms like inertia and isolation. Psychopathy is even harder to parse; in our society it’s used as a catch-all term for an Evil Person, a tangled mess of associations involving lack of empathy, lack of morality, and abuse.
What does it really mean? Psychopathy—no longer a valid psychiatric term, by the way—is a label used to pathologize violence and abuse, to dehumanize those with low empathy and associate them with cruelty, to lock away undesirables (thus correlating heavily with racism, transmisogyny, etc.), and to separate oneself emotionally from people who do horrific things. They’re not like me, you say. People like me would never do that—their brains are different, their everything is different, they’re not like me, they’re not a person, not really.
But they are. And chances are they’re neurotypical. Because yes, people just like you commit all sorts of horrific acts every day, and you don’t get to shunt that off on marginalized groups like the disabled and mentally ill to keep yourself snow-white and pure. What do you call a person who repeatedly hurts and abuses people without remorse? A psychopath? No, you call them a habitual abuser. Being a bad person, whatever that means, doesn’t make someone mentally ill.
That’s not where it ends, either. Check out the crime shows—most of the perps are mentally ill. Where do you see disabled characters? As villains, their motivations being resentment for their disability, or as objects of pity, or inspiration, or as miracle cure storylines (depriving real disabled people of the opportunity to see people like them existing and going about their lives, treating disability as a tragedy and teasing the disabled with impossible cures that they may not even want), or punchlines, or the grotesque, the pathetic, the dead, and all too often, the invisible.
When characters who are positive and accurate depictions of disability are created, all too often their creators deny their disability and claim disabled fans who identify with the characters are reading too much into it. Take Will Graham from Hannibal, Abed Nadir from Community, Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock, Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds—all of those are reasonably positive and accurate depictions of clearly autistic characters, and all of them explicitly hint in-show at their autism, and yet in each case the creators later take it back, deny it, retract the scraps of representation that disabled fans responded to so eagerly.
It’s rare enough for disabled characters to be represented at all, even under the circumstances outlined above. Furthermore, even when disabled characters are represented, the overwhelming majority are white, straight, cisgender men. This represents only a tiny portion of the disabled community, contributing to its erasure and invisibility.
All these stereotypes, misconceptions, and erasure in the media are merely reflections of identical attitudes in the general public. People insult each other by accusing their opponent of having a low IQ, or with related slurs. They call people they don’t agree with delusional; they label people they dislike with personality disorders. They speculate that killers and abusers commit their crimes due to psychosis, personality disorders, autism, or other mental illnesses and disabilities. This doesn’t even touch on inaccessibility, other types of stigma, and more.
Our beliefs and behaviors need to be analyzed and changed, maybe from the ground up. The representation in media is a symptom of the problem.