Criminal Minds is a television crime drama that revolves around the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The team uses forensic psychology and psychological profiling in order to catch criminals. Due to the psychological nature of the show, it has the potential to open up the conversation about mental illness and people who suffer from mental illnesses. I decided to look at the representation of schizophrenia within the show. Schizophrenia is a mental illness characterized by psychosis that usually manifests itself in the early twenties (Feist, 2012). There are three categories of symptoms of schizophrenia: positive, negative, and cognitive (Feist, 2012). Positive symptoms include delusional thinking, hallucinations, disorganized thought and speech, and poorly integrated perception (Feist, 2012). This is a simulation of what it is like to have auditory hallucinations, or to “hear voices.” Negative symptoms include nonresponsiveness, emotional flatness, immobility or the striking of strange poses (catatonia), reduction of speaking, and inability to complete tasks (Feist, 2012). Cognitive symptoms include problems with working memory; attention, verbal, and visual learning and memory; reasoning and problem solving; speed and processing; and disordered speech (Feist, 2012). Positive and cognitive symptoms are the most often seen in Criminal Minds due to their visual interest (Pirkis, Blood, Francis, & McCallum, 2006). Although Criminal Minds makes an effort to show the multiple sides of schizophrenia through reoccurring characters and unusual roles, it ultimately discourages the conversation about mental illness in society through its use of stereotypical representations.
Research and Methods
In my research, I used three articles that I found these articles using the database Communication and Mass Media Complete, and I made sure they were scholarly articles by sorting the results by academic journals and scholarly (peer-reviewed) articles. My articles are: “On-Screen Portrayals of Mental Illness: Extent, Nature, and Impacts;” “Media, Madness, and Misrepresentation: Critical Reflections on Anti-Stigma Discourse;” and “Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences.” I chose the articles because there really wasn’t a lot of research out there specifically focusing on schizophrenia, so I had to research mental illness in general. My search terms were “mental illness” and “mass media”, “schizophrenia” and “mass media,” and “mental illness” and “crime.” These articles give a comprehensive assessment of how mental illness is reflected in the media, both with those suffering and those treating them, as well as how this affects people suffering from mental illnesses in the real world by increasing the stigma against mental illness and decreasing help-seeking behavior among individuals with mental illnesses.
These articles all show that the media has a significant influence on the stigmatization of mental illness and the perceptions of people with mental illnesses, mental health professionals, treatments, and mental illnesses themselves (Harper, 2008)(Klin & Lemish, 2008)(Pirkis et al., 2006). They are relevant to my research because they show why it is important. If the media has this much influence over the perceptions of mental illness, it needs to be very careful as to how it portrays mental illness. The Pirkis et al. (2006) article helps to explain the different types of categories that people with mental illnesses are usually put into, and connects to my research to see if the characters in Criminal Minds fit into these stereotyped categories. These articles are much more general than my research because they look at mental illness in general, but that is to be expected because schizophrenia is a very specific topic. They ultimately show that the media has the ability to change how people perceive themselves and others, making it important to study how different forms of media, in my case the television show Criminal Minds, are portraying mental illness.
I worked with eleven episodes of Criminal Minds from seasons one through six that featured characters with schizophrenia. Five of these characters were the unidentified subjects (unsubs), criminals, and the other two are reoccurring characters on the show that reflect more diverse roles. The criminals were Dr. Theodore Bayer, Ben Foster, Gina King, Rhett Walden, and Marvin Doyle. The two reoccurring characters with schizophrenia are Dr. Spencer Reid, a genius FBI agent, and his mother, Dr. Diana Reid. I watched eleven episodes featuring the aforementioned characters: 6.19 “With Friends Like These…,” (Ben Foster), 5.07 “The Performer” (Gina King), 6.08 “Reflection of Crime” (Rhett Walden), 1.17 “A Real Rain” (Marvin Doyle), 1.09 “Derailed” (Dr. Theodore Bayer), 2.14 “The Big Game,” 2.15 “Revelations,” 4.06 “The Instincts,” 4.07 “Memoriam” (Dr. Diana Reid), 6.12 “Corazon,” and 6.17 “Valhalla” (Dr. Spencer Reid). I chose these episodes by looking at the summaries on the back of the DVD cases.
Unidentified Subjects (Unsubs)
Even though Criminal Minds attempts to disregard stereotypes through reoccurring characters with unique roles, it ends up reverting back to stereotypical categories in every character with schizophrenia. Each of the unsubs (Dr. Theodore Bayer, Ben Foster, Gina King, Rhett Walden, and Marvin Doyle) was represented as a “homicidal maniac” (Pirkis et al., 2006).
Dr. Theodore Bayer is a successful theoretical physicist until he begins to show symptoms of schizophrenia. He believes that the government is monitoring everyone and that he has a chip in his arm. Dr. Bayer also has vivid hallucinations of a man telling him that everyone is lying to him and that he should kill them. After years of therapy, he is deemed well enough to speak at a conference promoting a new anti-psychotic drug. On the way to the conference, he shares a train with one of the members of the BAU team. Upon seeing the agent’s FBI folder, he pulls out a gun and takes the train hostage. After Dr. Spencer Reid pretends to remove the chip from his arm, Dr. Bayer begins to agree to come out peacefully; the squad team shoots him.
Ben Foster is a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices, characterized by whispering in the background of the show, and sees realistic hallucinations. These hallucinations are three people that died in a fire. Foster shows deep resentment towards his hallucinations because they tell him to kill. Originally, the BAU team thinks that they are dealing with a gang because the murders appear to have been completed by four different people. Foster often tells his hallucinations that he does not want to continue killing, but they promise him that he will be happy and they will go away forever. However, every time he kills, they return and promise him that just more kill will be his fulfillment. Foster often tries to rid himself of his hallucinations through calling his mother and attempting to get exorcised at a church. After a long police chase, Foster is shot by the BAU.
Gina King is a schizophrenic, and she is not as central to the plot line as the other unsubs. She is a major fan of a goth rock band, but she is in love with the lead singer, Dante. Dante’s manager takes advantage of the King’s schizophrenia by having her kill to promote the group’s newest album. King does so because she believes that the more she kills, the more Dante will fall in love with her. Eventually she is captured and arrested.
Rhett Walden is a schizophrenic who hallucinates that his dead mother is still alive. He was born to a movie star when she was only nineteen, essentially ruining her career. After his parents get divorced, his mother takes him on in a husband, including taking him into the marriage bed. He begins to kidnap women who look like his mother at age nineteen, dresses them up in his mother’s old clothes, and forces them to act out the love scene from his mother’s only famous movie with him. If they cause any problems with the scene, he kills them and cuts off their lips. When the BAU finally finds him, he is carrying the corpse of his dead mother with the lips of the latest victim sewn onto her. It is insinuated that he did this in order to continue having sexual relations with her corpse. When he is giving himself up to the police, he hallucinates that he is walking down a red carpet hand in hand with his mother. He is arrested.
Marvin Doyle is a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices that tell him to kill. Like Gina King, he is not very central to the plotline. Doyle worked as a court reporter, and he got tired of seeing people who were obviously guilty get acquitted. Doyle claimed that he could hear the voices of the victims, and they were telling him to kill the guilty parties. Doyle is eventually arrested.
All of these characters fit into the category of the “homicidal maniac” (Pirkis et al., 2006). They kill because they hear voices or see hallucinations that encourage the violent behavior. Though Foster searches for help, he is eventually killed due to the perception that he is dangerous. These characters discourage the conversation about mental illness due to the insinuated relationship between schizophrenia and murder.
Dr. Spencer Reid
Dr. Spencer Reid is a genius with an IQ of 187. He graduated from high school at the age of twelve and is currently a special agent at the age of twenty-four. Due to his intellect, it is inferred early on that he has either Asperger’s syndrome or a mild form of autism. He often questions the mental illness stereotype and relates to the mentally ill unsubs. In episode 6.19, he points out to one of his teammates that they are relating the schizophrenia to the reason that Foster is killing. Dr. Reid makes the argument that having schizophrenia does not mean that the person immediately becomes a murderer. He also relates to several of the unsubs, telling them that he knows what it is like to be afraid of your own mind allowing the viewer to see a more human side to the “homicidal maniac.”
In season six, Dr. Reid begins to have severe headaches and sensitivity to light. He also begins to have some mild hallucinations. He goes to several doctors in order to try to figure out what is wrong with him, only to discover that there is no physical cause for his headaches. The doctors suggest that they might be psychosomatic. Dr. Reid immediately resists this diagnosis, stating, “I know something is physically wrong with me, and I’m not crazy. I knows what crazy looks like due to my mother, and I am not it” (6.12 “Corazon”). This backlash on the diagnosis adds to the negative representation of schizophrenia in this show. Dr. Reid is an intelligent, educated man who has experienced schizophrenia in his own life. If he reacts this negatively to it, then we are shown that having schizophrenia immediately makes one “crazy.”
Even the reactions of his teammates promote the negative stereotypes. When Dr. Reid approaches one of his teammates and admits that there is no physical reason for his headaches, instead of being told that there are ways to manage schizophrenia and that people live perfectly normal lives with this illness, he is comforted in telling him that is isn’t a sure thing that he has it. This makes schizophrenia almost seem to be equivalent to a terminal illness.
Dr. Diana Reid
Dr. Diana Reid is Dr. Spencer Reid’s mother. She was also a genius and a successful professor at a university before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Due to her schizophrenia, her husband leaves her, and Dr. Reid is forced to raise Spencer alone. She is very proficient as a parent, snuggling with her son at night when he is young, reading him bedtime stories, and giving him advice. Even when Spencer is older, he continues to write his mother a letter every day and goes to visit her whenever he has a case in Las Vegas. He also occasionally goes to her for advice on cases. When he comes into her room looking upset, she asks him what’s wrong. When he says nothing, she responds with, “don’t lie to me, a mother always knows” (4.07 “Memoriam”), At the end of the episode, Spencer spends the night on the couch in his mother’s room, further showing the strong bond they have as mother and son.
Despite the unique role of motherhood for a schizophrenia character, the writers often rely on traditional schizophrenia portrayals when it comes to Dr. Reid. She is put into the category of the victim of her illness (Pirkis et al., 2006). When her husband leaves her, he states it is because she can’t take care of herself. When he asks her what day it is, she gets confused and doesn’t know. As soon as Spencer turns eighteen, he has Dr. Reid put into a mental institution because he can no longer take care of his mother. She becomes hysterical and begs Spencer to allow her to stay in her home, but two men dressed in white come and drag her away while Spencer watches. Later, when Spencer asks her for help on a case, she is initially helpful, but eventually starts to have an attack of hysteria. She has to be subdued and drugged by the mental health care workers before she begins to calm down.
Here is a video from episode 2.01 “The Fisher King” that gives some insight into the relationship between Dr. Diana Reid and Dr. Spencer Reid.
1 in 4
This research is important because one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lifetime (Klin & Lemish, 2008). It is proven that the way the media portrays things can increase or decrease stigma (Klin & Lemish, 2008). Increasing stigma about mental illness can decrease help-seeking behaviors in individuals who have serious mental illnesses (Klin & Lemish, 2008). That’s a large portion of the population who aren’t getting the help that they need. If these people don’t seek help, their quality of life could be severely decreased, and their mental illnesses could worsen (Klin & Lemish, 2008).
Due to the nature of the show, Criminal Minds has abundant opportunities to encourage the conversation about mental illness in order to decrease stigma. They do take some of those opportunities through the unique roles and representations of Dr. Diana Reid, a mother and a genius, and Dr. Spencer Reid, a genius FBI agent. However, they usually resort to negative stereotypes through unsubs as homicidal maniacs (Pirkis et al., 2006), Dr. Spencer Reid’s reaction to possibly having schizophrenia, and Dr. Diana Reid’s as a victim (Pirkis et al., 2006). In conclusion, Criminal Minds may have made some steps toward a more positive representation of schizophrenia, but they have a long way to go before they can have an open conversation about the truth behind schizophrenia and mental illness in general.
Davis, J. (Writer). (2005, September 22). Criminal Minds [Television series]. CBS.
- Episode 1.09 “Derailed”
- Episode 1.17 “A Real Rain”
- Episode 2.14 “The Great Game”
- Episode 2.15 “Revelations”
- Episode 4.06 “The Instincts”
- Episode 4.07 “Memoriam”
- Episode 5.07 “The Performer”
- Episode 6.08 “Reflections of Crime”
- Episode 6.12 “Corazon”
- Episode 6.17 “Valhalla”
- Episode 6.19 “With Friends Like These…”
Feist, G. J. (2012). Psychology: Perspectives & connections. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Harper, S. (2005). Media, madness, and misrepresentation: critical reflections on anti-stigma discourse. European Journal of Communication, 20, 460-483.
Hellojarrad. (2011, June 13). Auditory hallucinations – An audio representation. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vvU-Ajwbok
Klin, A., & Lemish, D. (2008). Mental disorder stigma in the media: review of studies on production, content, and influences. Journal of Health Communication, 13, 434-449.
Rakker126. (2009, April 19). Criminal Minds – Reid is visiting his mother. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go9ea7joCTU
Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Francis, C., & McCallum, K. (2006). On-screen portrayals of mental illness: extent, nature, and impact. Journal of Health Communication, 11, 523-541.