How schizophrenia is misrepresented in TV and film — and how we can do better
The schizophrenic characters we see are usually supernatural villains, criminals, or inspirational fodder
We've all seen popular movies and TV shows that have used schizophrenia to drive a story forward. But how often do we stop to consider what those representations actually mean? How do they portray the experience of actually living with schizophrenia, and how do the stereotypes that these representations lean on come back around to harm mad and disabled people?
A 2021 GLAAD report found that disabled characters made up only 2.8 per cent of all series regular characters in the 2021-22 television season in the U.S. That's roughly 22 characters out of 775 total examined. When looking at that figure, especially considering that 22 per cent of Canadians and 26 per cent of Americans live with visible and invisible disabilities, people with disabilities are shockingly underrepresented onscreen.
What's even worse is that the few representations of disability and madness that we do see are wrapped up in stereotypes which impact how we view mad and disabled people around us. Schizophrenia is one of the conditions that the general public views most negatively, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research. The prevalence of stereotypes also creates internalized stigma that impacts the self-image of disabled people.
A commonly observed trope in TV and movies represents schizophrenia as criminal and violent. (Think Norman Bates in Psycho, Mr. Cleg in Spider, or any of the dozens of characters from shows like Criminal Minds' endless carousels of violent depictions of madness and neurodiversity.) Horror, thrillers, and true crime often frame mad people as villains whose motivations are blamed on conditions like schizophrenia, which perpetuates the idea that people who have those conditions are a danger to others.
Another common representation of schizophrenia makes the condition out to be supernatural or magical, like in the show Yellowjackets or the film Donnie Darko. When schizophrenia is placed in the supernatural or fantasy realms, it diminishes the real-life experience of living with schizophrenia and suggests that it is beyond humanity or our understanding. By aligning schizophrenia with demonic entities and malicious spirits, these supernatural representations similarly perpetuate the idea of schizophrenic people as "other," which can ostracize them and negatively impact their self-perception.
Not every trope makes people with schizophrenia look like villains, but even the more well-intentioned attempts can be harmful in their own way. Take, for instance, the portrayal of the "supercrip" as seen in A Beautiful Mind, The Soloist, or the show Legion. "Supercrip" is a term used by the disabled community to refer to stories where people "overcome" their disability. Although these depictions are sometimes created to challenge the perceptions of what mad and disabled people can and can't do, as explained by Stella Young, they "objectify disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people."
This trope also suggests madness and disability exist entirely within a person instead of engaging with the oppressive social, legal, and medical conditions that create barriers for mad and disabled people. "Supercrip" stories can act as a defense mechanism for the status quo — because if one mad or disabled person could beat the odds and live happily in our current society, ostensibly, all mad and disabled people should have it within themselves to do the same.
Criminal and violent representation in Criminal Minds
A 2012 study found that, in 41 movies studied, a majority of schizophrenic characters displayed violent behaviour toward others and themselves, and almost a third of those characters displayed homicidal tendencies. The same study also found that causation is hardly discussed in those films.
Shows like Criminal Minds, which follow a procedural format where a new weekly suspect is pursued by federal officers and caught by the end of the episode, are chock full of exaggerated depictions of schizophrenia. The formulaic approach of Criminal Minds made the show easy to watch, but to keep viewers from getting bored, it had to continue to shock them with more and more gruesome stories. Crimes committed by supposedly schizophrenic people ranged from cannibalism to necrophilia.
Even if the viewer knows to take these stories with a grain of salt, the depiction of these horrific crimes and lack of exploration into a character's motives — coupled with zero follow-up on their fates after they are caught (or often, killed) — reinforced an "us vs. them" mentality that creates a fearsome idea of schizophrenia. This is bolstered by storylines that continuously ask the viewer to sympathize with the neurotypical, non-disabled police, who are billed as heroes for tracking down and capturing the suspects.
Mad and disabled people are actually more likely to be victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of it. And in a study in which 46 mad people were interviewed about the stigma they have experienced, people with schizophrenia reported more verbal and physical abuse than any other group in the study.
The show's less overtly negative representations are few and far in between. Spencer Reid's mother Diana, one of the rare recurring characters with schizophrenia, is shown to have a loving relationship with her son. But even though the show sympathizes with her, it also makes her out to be one of the "good ones" against a backdrop of countless violent mad characters; ultimately, whatever positive representation Diana provides is completely overshadowed by an overrepresentation of schizophrenic killers.
Supernatural representation in Yellowjackets
Another common stereotype in TV and movies suggests that schizophrenia is the result of some kind of supernatural force. This trope depicts schizophrenia as something that possesses a person and forces them to do things that they have no control over, often harming others in the process.
Showtime's critically acclaimed 2021 psychological drama Yellowjackets depicts a character named Lottie who experiences hallucinations after running out of her medication for an unnamed condition. While the show was praised for its representation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it slips into problematic territory with the way Lottie transforms from a sweet background character to becoming possessed, experiencing premonitions and visions of death, and calling on the girls around her to hurt one of their own. Since this transformation happens after Lottie runs out of her medication, the implication is that she is this way when untreated, which reduces a complex condition to a clichéd representation. Yet again, a mad character becomes a villain or someone to be feared, and the only explanation for their motivation is their madness.
With just one season out so far, the show is still well-positioned to turn this representation on its head and provide useful commentary about the way Lottie was medicalized at a young age for her apparently atypical behaviour. But if it continues along the same path, Yellowjackets will become another representation of schizophrenia that dehumanizes mad people and causes the viewer to fear them.
"Supercrip" representation in A Beautiful Mind
"Supercrip" stories rely on narratives of inspiration and overcoming adversity. One of the most well-known depictions of schizophrenia is A Beautiful Mind, the 2001 film starring Russell Crowe. A Beautiful Mind won four of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture, and is based on the life of mathematician John Nash as told through Sylvia Nasar's unauthorized biography of him. Throughout the film, Nash experiences hallucinations that lead him to be forcibly institutionalized; his condition also inadvertently causes him to put his infant son in danger. But Nash is later able to overcome his hallucinations by sheer willpower and return to his work, eventually going on to win the Nobel Prize.
Some have noted that schizophrenia is generally well-represented in A Beautiful Mind, and the viewer is certainly meant to sympathize with John Nash instead of seeing him as a violent person or a criminal. Nash's ability to exercise control over his life and learn to live with schizophrenia, especially with the support of his loved ones, can be an empowering thing for mad people to see on screen. But nevertheless, this type of story paints madness and disabilities as individual "problems" that need to be fixed and overcome in order to live "normally."
How can we represent schizophrenia more thoughtfully?
As with so many movies and TV shows about marginalized people, stories about people with schizophrenia are rarely told with mad people in control of the narrative, and the actors who play them are not part of mad and/or disabled communities. While neurotypical and non-disabled actors take home awards and accolades for their portrayals of madness and disability, real mad and disabled people feel the repercussions of these stereotypical depictions reverberating in their everyday lives.
Mad and disabled people deserve to see themselves represented wholly, not as punchlines, lazy plot points, or inspirational fodder for the benefit of the able-bodied. Our experiences are all unique and multi-faceted, yet the stories told about us are too often boiled down to stereotypes instead of embracing neurodivergence, madness, and disabilities.
Increasing or improving representation of schizophrenia in the media will not immediately change societally-rooted ableist attitudes. But empathetic and informed storytelling can help to counteract and correct the misinformation that is shared through TV and movies. With stories about schizophrenia still so deeply entrenched in stereotypes that impact the real-life treatment of mad people and the inequities they face, the need to tell better stories isn't just critical — it could be life-saving.