The creation of a reality: The portrayal of mental illness and violent crime on television

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Robert Thompson


Mass media, Criminology, Psychotherapy

Subject Categories

Critical and Cultural Studies


This study presents a comprehensive review of the literature to support the argument that: (1) television falsely portrays the mentally ill as violent, dangerous, and unpredictable; (2) the public holds negative attitudes toward mental illness because the mentally ill are perceived as violent, dangerous, and unpredictable; and (3) there is a causal link between false portrayals of mental illness on television and negative public attitudes toward mental illness.

The study investigated the portrayal of mental illness on television using a content analysis of 168 hours of prime time television programming broadcast in September 1994. The findings indicate that the rate of characters committing a murder, rape, robbery, or non-simple assault on television was 3.28, but for the mentally ill on television the rate was 30.2%. The United States crime rate for these offenses is less than 1.5% over an entire year. The mentally ill are portrayed on television to commit violent crime approximately ten times more often than other television characters and twenty times more often than the general United States population.

All six research hypotheses were supported. The mentally ill are portrayed on television as violent, with a quality of life and an impact on society which is more negative than other characters, and the distribution of violent crime offenses on television is significantly different than the distribution of offenses in the U.S.

The study found the most frequently portrayed disorders of the mentally ill on television, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, were: undifferentiated psychosis (11.8%); paraphilia (9.5%); drug abuse (7.9%); alcohol abuse (7.1%); and mental retardation (7.1%).

The study created a taxonomy of mentally ill "character types" on television and found the most frequently portrayed types were: chemically affected (26%); sex offender (16.5%); neurologically impaired (10.2%); snapped from pressure (9.5%); comic mentally ill (9.5%); psychopath (7.8%); and obsessed with another person (6%).


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