People with mental disorders are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, but that is hardly the impression left by the media. Television and films often portray people with mental illness as being volatile and violent.
People who commit a violent crime are frequently labeled “psychos,” “maniacs,” or “schizophrenics” by headline writers and newscasters, this inaccurately links violence and mental illness in the public mind.
Surveys show that over 60 percent of Americans believe that people with schizophrenia are violent toward others, and over 50 percent describe them as unpredictable.
While the media often blames mental illness for violent acts, a closer look often reveals that there are many factors which can cause a person to be violent. Many studies connecting violence and mental illness are biased because they come from populations of prison inmates or from psychiatric patients. However, these are only a subset of the mentally ill population and not representative of people with mental illness as a whole.
Deinstitutionalization has also been blamed for acts of violence that are committed by people with mental illness. Studies by the American Psychiatric Association have shown that there has been a very minimal increase in violence by mentally ill individuals since deinstitutionalization, although they are 12 times more likely than others to be victims of crimes in large cities.
The effect of blaming violence on mental illness increases the stigma against all people with mental illnesses. That stigma is reinforced by sensationalized reporting or stereotyping on television and in movies. Media presentations often reinforces popular misconceptions about mental illness which will deepen the fear and stigma and will deter people from getting help.
Even when media stereotypes do not focus on a link between violence and mental illness, they still often portray mentally ill people in condescending and stigmatizing ways. If they are not portrayed as homicidal maniacs, people with mental illness are often depicted as childlike or unconventional free spirits. They are rarely seen as just “regular” people. Combating these stigmas isn’t easy however hopefully as we move forward, mental illness will be portrayed in a more balanced way.