Urban legends and crime: The stigmatization of mental health
Crime has always been sensational. True crime books, movies, comics, and podcasts gather huge followings. And while the overwrought prose of the penny dreadfuls has given way to the even-handed narration and soft strands of the new serials, the same audience is still waiting to be thrilled and frightened. The pub stories of Spring-Heel Jack and Sweeney Todd, similarly, have evolved into the chain letter, the email warning, and eventually the “creepypasta.” Creepypastas, etymologically evolved from “copy and paste,” are chain letters for the internet age. Initially, these were stories anonymously posted in different internet forums, then copied and pasted in new locations. Often in first person, they came with manipulated images and took the form of “short, shareable user-generated ghost stories that can focus on anything from the especially gruesome, like murder and suicide, to the creepy and otherworldly, like aliens and zombies.” The copied text would be updated, new details added, new images created, new stories told, like a game of telephone. The reach of the stories increased, and soon it wouldn’t take long for any internet user to see them.
On May 31, 2014, 12-year-old Payton Leutner was stabbed 19 times by two of her friends, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser. The attack took place near Waukesha, Wisconsin, in a nearby wooded area. The motive for the crime was to please the Slender Man, a creepypasta character created in 2009. The 12-year-old perpetrators were tried as adults and pleaded guilty; both girls were sentenced to time in psychiatric hospitals instead of prisons. Leutner survived by crawling out of the woods for help.
The Slender Man is not real, of course, but that hardly matters to Ms. Leutner. The stabbing, an urban legend come to life, brings to mind the many stories told around campfires, at sleepovers, in basements. Escaped “mental patients” with hooks, Halloween candy mixed with poison and razor blades, killers in backseats thwarted by headlights. Very rarely have there been verifiable accounts of these supposed crimes. But one recurring theme is “insanity,” a catch-all for the sort of criminals who stalk lover’s lanes and single-sex dormitories, always freshly escaped and armed with axes, hooks, and nefarious intent.
This fear was echoed in real life in a big way; in the United States, there was a mass closing of state mental hospitals that began in the late 1950’s and continued through the 1960’s. According to the Sentencing Project’s analysis “Mental Health Offenders in the Criminal Justice System, the idea was to reform the mental health system and address issues including the use of state mental hospitals as “warehouses,” and to try to help released patients return to the community. Unfortunately, when the hospitals closed, new facilities were met with resistance—no one wanted the stigmatized former patients in their “backyards.” The improvement of mental health treatments helped usher in the closing of state hospitals, especially advances in medication and a wider availability of local psychiatric services. Without replacement for the state hospitals and with no new funding flowing toward patients, the new treatments were simply inaccessible for many uninsured and indigent patients. In-patient hospital treatment is also expensive, and out of reach for most of the population who would benefit. Lastly, involuntary commitment can be difficult or impossible unless the patient is a clear danger to themselves or others. Weier and Geyser both faced involuntary commitment in sensational circumstances, after presenting a clear and convincing danger to the community.
When the hospitals closed and communities fought against halfway houses and help for those displaced, help for mental health issues dwindled. Those whose conditions made it difficult to hold a job, those with little or no family resources, and those who were unable or unwilling to take medication found themselves on the streets. Many people found themselves in and out of jail. In 2002, the Sentencing Project referred to the Los Angeles County Jail as “the largest de facto mental institution in the United States.” They estimated that on any given night, the jail held up to 3300 “seriously mentally ill inmates.”
Homeless adults with severe symptoms of mental illness are more likely to be engaged in the criminal justice system. 37% of federal and state incarcerated persons, and 44% of persons in local jails, have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. 1 in 4 incarcerated persons is experiencing “serious psychological distress.” Despite that, it is estimated that less than 4% of homicides are committed by the seriously mentally ill. It is difficult to square with the numbers of inmates with mental conditions, but criminalization of homelessness and other conduct contributes to this data. The Sentencing Project notes that this data includes crimes such as disorderly conduct and trespass based on homelessness, along with crimes to “obtain money for subsistence,” like theft and prostitution. These less sensational crimes do not result in involuntary commitment, and rarely result in obtaining any sort of help for the underlying conditions.
Anissa Weier was released from the Winnebago Mental Health Institute on September 13, 2021, after serving less than five years of a twenty-five year sentence. Her release is conditional–her internet use is monitored, she is tracked by GPS, and she must continue her psychiatric care. She must live with her father. Many persons with serious mental illnesses, by contrast, face a “revolving door" from jail to the streets and back again – “unless they are among the few for whom reentry has meant planning and linkage with community supports.” Even incarcerated persons rarely get treatment for mental illnesses and are often left to fend for themselves; a 2020 report from the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ concluded that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections failed to provide mental health treatment to an extent that violated the Eighth Amendment.
Despite the urban legends, people with mental illness are not escaping asylums with hooks to stalk the back roads and scare teenagers into behaving. Instead, those with mental illnesses are more likely to face incarceration, likely without medication or any medical assistance. Payton Leutner’s attackers have benefitted from treatment for their conditions. What will it take to expand that treatment throughout the criminal justice system?