I wanted to discuss the way pop culture deals with veteran’s mental health, and to my surprise, a number of potential options appeared. Veterans are a common topic on TV procedurals (stereotypically watched by traditional, middle Americans who love apple pie and freedom), and due to the two wars and the influx of baby boomers remembering how Vietnam veterans were treated, the topic comes up a lot. The theme is usually how the government has failed veterans (and how they have!) and how the local community needs to step up and take care of them. Often, one of the main characters of the show is a veteran himself. Shows like NCIS, CSI and Bones have characters that are veterans, and have episodes about veteran’s issues. Recently, the issue has appeared in a more complicated fashion on more complicated cable shows like Justified and Sherlock. One episode about veterans that stuck with me is Criminal Minds’ “Distress,” from its second season.
I know what you are thinking. Criminal Minds is a loaded show at this point. It has a well-earned reputation for violence and is often right at the top when the discussion of violence in America comes up. It also has the mark of being a procedural show at a time when procedurals aren’t in fashion. In a lot of ways, it has carried on the tradition of Hill Street Blues and Law and Order. In other ways, it is much more traditional than either of them. It is a remnant of the late ‘90s, when serial killers were popular, and it reinforces all of the terrible procedural stereotypes. The main cast is mostly white, all heterosexual, and bland as possible. The show has backed off the attractive complications of the characters, making them easily identifiable tropes. Plots cover acceptable middle ground, where slutty people get killed, gay people treated with respect but not approval, minorities are either saints or villains, and the heroes always save the day. It is as cookie cutter as it gets. It is the highest profile case of psychology used in pop culture and it one of the biggest offenders of connecting mental illnesses to violence.
Like most procedurals, though, when the show is on, it can make a serious impact. “Distress” is one of those episodes. The show starts with the profiling team going to Houston’s Fifth Ward to investigate three murders. As they continue to investigate, evidence points them to a homeless person, homeless shelters and finally, to a veteran named Roy Woodridge. Ultimately, PTSD and guilt from war, combined with the excessive construction in the area, caused Roy to have a psychotic break. His delusions lead him to believe he was back in Mogadishu, Somalia during the UN Peacekeeping missions in the early 1990s where he killed people to protect himself. His best friend tries to get him to turn himself in using their shared experiences in war. By the end of the episode, he is dead, unable to come to terms with his service and his illness.
There’s no way to describe the plot without making it sound cliché, but I'm impressed by how the show dealt with the PTSD issue. Roy is treated with respect, and the team spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how to arrest him without hurting him. The symptoms of his illness are accurate (though inaccurate symptoms of PTSD are often shown on TV). His friend tells the team leader that he tried to get Roy to counseling, but was unable to convince him. His murders were reactions to his delusional state, not any real willingness to murder people. Overall, he is shown as a broken man unaware of his actions. Criminal Minds actually shows its killers a surprising amount of sympathy and a decent amount of accuracy in regards to various mental illnesses, and Roy’s case is no exception.
That is not to say it is perfect. This episode had some stereotypical (borderline racist) views of Houston’s ethnic minorities, managing to work in an overbearing, sassy black mother and overly aggressive Hispanic restaurant owner. It had some questionable things to say about homeless people, as well. At one point, one of the characters off-handedly says, “there are high incidences of mental disorders among the homeless,” without any follow-up. It is an especially sour note coming from a character whose mother has schizophrenia, and who is more compassionate to people with mental illnesses than anyone else on the show. In addition, the customary military glorification appears, as Roy is not just a good solider, but the best. He not just a good shot, but “he never misses.” All of these aspects are to be expected, unfortunately. They detract from a serious attempt to reconcile the lack of diagnosis, treatment and support of returning veterans and potential PTSD, which the show handles well.
Criminal Minds is a love it or hate it show. I enjoy it, mainly for episodes like this. Because the show deals with psychology in a more direct way than any other on TV right, it has the potential to do a lot of good for mental health issues. It certainly does do that most of the time, but occasionally, it can say something good to a huge audience of people. I wish it gave more support information about the issues addressed (like suicide hotline numbers), but I enjoy the show. If you are interested in how veteran’s mental health issues appear in pop culture, this is a good place to start.
Next time, I’m looking back to Law and Order at a great episode about the civil rights of people with mental illnesses.
**If you are a veteran dealing with PTSD (or know someone who is), please call 1-800-Vet2Vet (1-800-838-2838) or visit http://www.veteranscall.us/.