Stigmatizing Mental Illness in Popular Culture

Mental illness has been and continues to be the subject of many movies, novels and video games. It’s a topic widely misunderstood by the general public in part due to the lack of education on the subject and more significantly a misrepresentation of mental illness in our popular culture. These gross misrepresentations create a stigma around mental illness.

The Facts

Let’s look at the facts. Research done by the Canadian Mental Health Association’s states that “people who experience a mental illness are no more violent than people without a mental illness.” Right off the bat the whole stereotype falls apart. There is no reason that mental illness should be an explanation for aggression and unmitigated violence by a person in real life or by a character in a piece of fiction. It’s unfounded and frankly lazy reasoning. According to the research “the majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence.” Not only are people with mental illness no more violent than anyone else in society but the majority of crimes in our society are committed by people without mental illness as well. But you wouldn’t know that by the sheer amount of attributions of violent crimes to mental illness in movies, in video games, in books, in our society (ie. mass shootings).


So if all of these misconceptions are just that, misconceptions, then where does violent crime really come from? Dr. Jeffrey Swanson (via The New Yorker), a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University, has done a lot of research into the cause of violent crime and which factors contribute to an individual’s likelihood to commit a violent crime. When Dr. Swanson looked at data he had collected from a group of ten thousand individuals (some mentally ill and some mentally healthy) he found that an individual’s likelihood to commit a crime was dependent on “whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs.” And only in a small number of cases, less than four percent, was a combination of one of these factors with a severe mental illness found in an individual who committed a violent crime. So instead of writing off people who commit mass shootings or murderous villains in a movie as mentally ill society should be looking more closely at these individuals’ motivations because whether or not they are mentally ill is not the answer for why they did the things they did.

So not only does falsely assigning mental illness as the cause for violent crime and violent behaviour distract from the real causes (drugs, alcohol, poverty, etc.) but it also hurts those with mental illness. How would you feel if everyone believed that your illness makes you dangerous? How would you feel if everywhere you looked popular culture is portraying people with mental illness as insane psychopaths? Not only would it hurt your self image and devalue you as human but it would also make people without mental illness wary of you and effect the way they treat you. How is this fair? Well simply put: it isn’t.

“The real issue is the fact that people with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society” says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

When it comes down to it the victims are the people with mental illness. On average one in four adults with a mental illness will experience at least one act of violence per year. Per year. That’s almost four times more likely than it is for an adult without a mental illness to be a victim of physical or sexual violence. This is according to research done by Mark A. Bellis, DSc, and his colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University in England. “Instead of compassion toward adults with disabilities as victims of violence, the public often fears violence from them, particularly those with severe mental illness,” notes Esme Fuller-Thomson in an editorial accompanying the research done by Dr. Bellis. People are afraid of mental illness. This is in no small part due to the portrayal of mental illness in popular culture.

The Falsehoods

Movies have stigmatized mental illness as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and as recently as the Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012). Everyone knows the stereotypical “mentally ill” killer that movies love to harp on for their villains. It would be way too much work to actually develop a character and provide meaningful motivations for why a character would kill or torture someone. So more often than not the writer will make that character mentally ill and that’s enough for audiences to justify extreme violence and immoral behaviour. That is completely unacceptable.

People who have a mental illness are not a threat. They aren’t maniacal, unethical killers like the Joker or Hannibal Lecter. They are people who have an illness. An illness, not a problem. Diabetes is an illness but writers don’t use characters with diabetes as serial killers or torturous, unethical villains. They use people with mental illness. They use a character with a mental illness to incite fear in their audience. The Joker is scary because he just wants to watch the world burn. Hannibal Lecter is scary because wants to eat your face off your body and wash it down with a nice Chianti. And all the motivation that is provided for these characters is that they are mentally disturbed (Hannibal Lecter is literally described as a “pure psychopath”).


Hannibal Lecter in his cell, face bound by a muzzle so he won’t try and eat the guards as they walk by.

All of these portrayals are egregious and unfounded. They are the result of lazy writers and reveal some horrible misconceptions held by our society. It’s an issue that is going unchallenged by many. It’s a situation from which many are profiting. Unless we start to change the way we think about mental illness our culture will only continue to reflect and capitalize on the fears and misconceptions about mental illness that proliferate our society.



  1. […] The most glaring problem other than the ending is with Howard. There is no motivation given for the way he acts but the way he clenches and un-clenches his hands when he’s stressed implies that he’s suffering from a mental illness or possibly PTSD from his time in the Navy, one of the few things we actually get told about Howard. While this won’t matter to some people it should. Using a mental illness as the sole reason for a character to be violent and aggressive just perpetuates a horrible stigma about mental health, one that I have talked about at length before. […]


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