4 November 2013

Criminal representation

My heart sometimes sinks at the way OCD is misrepresented on screen; as in a recent episode of the American crime drama, CSI: New York

On this occasion, the crime scene investigators are pursuing a serial killer, who is using the board game Cluedo (Clue as it's known in the States) as the basis for whom he kills, where and how.

As the story develops, it transpires that he's been seeing a psychiatrist since he was 13, and has fallen in love with her. As an adult, he reveals his feelings to her, but becomes angry when she explains that she doesn't - and can't - reciprocate his love. She's forced to refer him to another doctor and he seeks revenge for her rejection by killing people she cares about: two of the three victims are also her patients and his last, failed target is her fianc√©. 

So far, no complaint from me.

In the course of the investigation, though, the team finds out that the psychiatrist was treating the killer for depression and OCD. This is mentioned in passing, as a throwaway remark. Anyone who is unfamiliar with these conditions might, therefore, conclude that they were to blame for his becoming a killer. No other psychological explanation is offered as to how his behaviour has escalated to murder. We know that he's angry with his therapist, but that doesn't seem enough to explain such cold, premeditated killings. Viewers are bound to latch onto any named condition as the real reason for them.
Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I'd like to think that the writers of the show knew better, and that this wasn't their intention. However, tossing OCD and depression into the mix was bound to leave some viewers with the impression that homicidal tendencies are part and parcel of these conditions.

It's true that many people with OCD suffer intrusive thoughts of a violent nature, for example, pushing someone under a train or stabbing a loved one. Research shows, though, that people without OCD have these, too. Most of us, however, can easily dismiss them for what they are, ie just thoughts. 

Someone experiencing these as a manifestation of OCD places far greater meaning on them and fears that having the thought means they will act on it. The fact that this notion causes them great distress proves they won't - to everyone but them. 

Of course, there are real-life incidences of murderers who happen to have OCD, but that doesn't mean having OCD makes you a murderer!

This kind of casual, unthinking reference to mental health conditions is immensely damaging. No wonder there is still stigma and fear surrounding many of them, if people associate them with murder.

Thank goodness we have OCD sufferer, Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler, in ITV's Whitechapel, to help redress the balance in favour of the good guys.

 * * *

A couple of days after publishing this post, I Tweeted the two writers of this episode of CSI: New York - Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt - seeking their comments.

Bryan Wynbrandt replied: 'OCD is why he was being treated. He killed because he was misguidedly in love. Apologies if u were offended.'

I appreciate that it's difficult to respond fully in 140 characters, but I can't help feeling he has missed the point. I live in hope that my post will make him think about how he writes about mental health conditions in future.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and I cringed when i read how OCD was used in that television segment. Why mention it at all? It doesn't add to the story. All it does is perpetuate the misconceptions surrounding the disorder.

Helen Barbour said...

My thoughts exactly! Thanks for the feedback.

Lindsay said...

The Bedlam programme on Chanel 4 about the hospital that is based where the original 'Bedlam' was, focused on serious cases of OCD, with good results from therapy. The programme also discussed the intrusive thoughts issue, being an extension of totally normal behaviour. I thought it was an informative programme - did you see it? If so what are your thought s about it?

Unknown said...

It would be interesting to see the exact statistics but I bet murderers without OCD by far outnumber murderers with it.

Also important to note: not every scyzophrenic is automatically a serial killer. So much for stereotypes ;-)

Helen Barbour said...

Lindsay, yes, I did see Bedlam and agree that it was very informative, and also encouraging for OCD sufferers, ie to see that there is hope of recovery for even the most serious cases. OCD Ward, on ITV recently, was also a very good programme, which is worth watching if it's repeated or on still catch-up.

Helen Barbour said...

Karin, the British newspaper, The Sun, was recently in trouble for its headline about the number of murders committed by mental health patients. As you say, you need to look at the other side of the coin, too.