Sticks and Stones: Mental Health Stigma and Crime Fiction

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Crime fiction is entertainment. Writers’ primary goal is to entertain. But what is the impact of the written word on the most vulnerable people in society? Does crime fiction contribute to mental health stigma?

What is stigma?
The term stigma refers to the negative stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed towards a group – in this case, people with mental health problems. For example, the stereotype “schizophrenics are psycho killers” may lead to attitudes like “all mental patients should be locked up” and “I don’t want a nutter around my children” and actions like avoiding people with mental health problems, opposing mental health facilities in their neighbourhoods, and beating a man to death.

Stigma is not just about public attitudes to mental health. People with mental health problems can direct these negative attitudes towards themselves – self-stigma: “It’s my fault I’m depressed – I’m not strong enough to cope.” There is also institutional or structural stigma, where organisations discriminate against individuals, such as quietly cutting 1,711 psychiatric beds.

Stigma and Crime Fiction
People with mental health problems have a long history of portrayal in fiction. In Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Ajax, the titular character is tricked by Athena into believing animals are the Greek leaders. He is deeply ashamed that he was fooled by the goddess, convinced the Greeks are laughing at him, and literally falls on his sword. Here we have a classic example of self-stigma ending in violent death.

The Samaritans have issued guidance to all individuals involved in the media about portrayals of suicide, due to the evidence that suicide reporting influences suicidal people. Over 60% of broadcast media portrayals of people with mental health problems are “pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic”.

I hate reaching the end of a crime novel and, when the detective reveals the killer, the only explanation for his crimes is “oh, he’s mad”. Not only this lazy and deeply unsatisfying for the reader, it also contributes to the wealth of mental health stigma contributing to the lie that “killers are crazy, so crazies are killers”.

The stigmatising doesn’t end with the perpetrators of crime. Detectives and crime solvers are also suffering from poor mental health, although their issues may be treated more as quirks or “character flaws” rather than serious health problems. The functional alcoholic detective has existed for decades, belying the serious consequences of alcohol dependence. While Adrian Monk’s OCD may be well-realised at times, his colleagues reference to him being “very persnickety” falls short of describing this debilitating condition. And the rise of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, particularly Aspergers, in detectives such as Sarah Lund, Saga NorĂ©n and the BBC’s Sherlock fails to take in the breath of ASD while shamelessly enjoying a character who “speaks their mind” as if this is the only hallmark of the disorders.

Stigma and Crime Writers
Writers have long understood the significance of words. Edward Bulwer-Lytton cemented a sentiment over two thousand years old when he wrote “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

When I asked panellists at CrimeFest 2014 about the impact of crime fiction on mental health stigma, answers ranged from striving for accuracy to be respectful to not doing research because entertainment is the most important thing.

The words at the top of this page were all used by crime writers at Theakstons Crime Writing Festival last weekend. These are individuals whose work I enjoy and opinions I generally respect.

However, even as influencers of culture, they are also products of it – their language is the language of their community. As George Orwell wrote in 1984 “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Words can kill can kill with far great efficiency than sticks and stones. Perhaps some crime writers need to reconsider how they use theirs.

5 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones: Mental Health Stigma and Crime Fiction

  1. I always find this sort of topic fascinating. I’m not entirely sure where stigma comes from in the first place. Since the majority of us will suffer from at least one type of mental health problem during our lifetime, mental health problems are more the norm than the exception. Yet in any other area of humanity when we stigmatise something, that something is something suffered by a minority. Perhaps a better education to the population as a whole… increased awareness and understanding of the broad array of mental illness and diversity of people it affects would improve public perception? That’s just my own theorising. As with all cultural issues involving perception, I doubt it will be solved quickly or with one simple solution.

    That said, this entire post did remind me of a related talking point that I’m always conflicted on. Does a writer have a moral obligation to the reader? Is it part of the responsibility of the writer to inform a reader and try to steer them towards more moral behaviour and/or more morally positive stances on the issues covered in the story? After all… reality is not the most moral place, and I’ve found sometimes that the more realistic a piece becomes, the lesser the part morality plays. It sounds as though you’d agree a writer has at least some level of moral obligation to their readers, but I’d be interested to know where you’d draw the line?

    1. I think stigma begins in fear. People are always looking for someone to blame and it’s easier to blame an “other” instead of considering that it might be someone like you.

      As for moral obligation, my only absolute on this is accuracy. I understand that there is such a thing as “artistic license”, but when that affects the lives of real people, vulnerable people, the writer should do them justice.

      Also, if they aren’t interested beyond entertainment – in an “anything goes” fashion – then they should recognise their impact. Understand what it is they are doing. And if they’re still fine with it, that’s their call.

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