What Netflix's 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' Gets Wrong (and Right) About Mental Illness
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Felix Kalvesmaki, The Mighty’s mental health intern, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
Netflix dropped its new four-episode docuseries, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” on January 24. The series, which revolves around the notorious American serial killer who confessed to 30 homicides committed in the 70s, has drawn praise and criticism from viewers. One major point of contention from the miniseries is the discussion of Ted Bundy’s mental illness.
In the documentary, Bundy is diagnosed with bipolar disorder — then known as manic-depression — by Yale psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis. In recounting Dr. Lewis’ conclusions about Bundy, the documentary attributes some of his worst deeds to his bipolar disorder — including his murders. This is hardly the first time mental illness has been used as a scapegoat, or at least an explanation, for a criminal’s actions.
Just last year, the New York Daily News published a story portraying the psychiatric history of a gunman who opened fire in Florida. Ranker even published a stigmatizing listicle entitled, “9 Serial Killers Who Suffered From Mental Illness.”
All this to say, Netflix’s new docuseries isn’t exactly groundbreaking when it comes to suggesting mental illness is the culprit of violent behavior. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind when watching and discussing Bundy’s diagnosis from “Conversations with a Killer.”
Here’s what this series got wrong (and right) about mental illness:
Wrong: People with mental illness are inherently dangerous.
“Conversations with a Killer” presents bipolar disorder as the key that supposedly unlocks the mystery behind Bundy’s strange behavior — from his murders to his infamous decision to forego lawyers and represent himself during his own trial. His murders are attributed to his “down-phase,” or depressive episodes, and to “a voice in his head” that “would start saying things about women.” The show suggests his decision to represent himself in court can be attributed to his “manic episodes.”
This is problematic because it implies people with mental illness are likely to be dangerous. It implies that because Bundy had bipolar disorder, he was inherently more dangerous than the average person, and more prone to murder.
But studies have shown people with mental illness are not any more dangerous than the “average” person. In fact, it’s the opposite. Folks with severe mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. According to Mentalhealth.gov, someone with severe mental illness is over 10 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than someone without one.
Wrong: Not all people with bipolar disorder experience psychosis.
Another questionable aspect of the discussion surrounding Ted Bundy’s diagnosis is how psychosis is presented. Bundy apparently heard “a voice in his head” that he claimed drove him to commit his crimes against women. This is an example of an auditory hallucination, something some people with bipolar disorder experience.
However, not all people who have bipolar disorder will experience hallucinations, a characteristic feature of psychosis.
While the show doesn’t outright suggest that all people with bipolar disorder have hallucinations, it doesn’t state the opposite either, and that’s an important distinction to make when discussing mental illness. The oversimplification of a complex condition like bipolar disorder can lead to mass misunderstanding, which is the last thing someone dealing with a mental illness needs.
It’s worth noting that just like mental illness in general, someone who experiences psychosis is not more dangerous because they experience this particular symptom. This was something Mighty contributor Rhianna Wetherell addressed in her piece, “Why We Need to Stop Believing People Who Experience Psychosis Are Dangerous“:
Yes, some people struggle quite badly with particularly distressing symptoms, but nobody with psychosis needs to hear false statements that they are always dangerous — it makes us less likely to talk about it to people who can really help us.
Right: Ted Bundy is a unique case and his killings are likely completely disconnected from his mental illness.
Ted Bundy had bipolar disorder, sure. However, not all people with bipolar disorder are destined to wind up like Bundy. “Conversations with a Killer” actually does point this out. The docuseries suggests that Bundy’s lack of empathy is what made him a serial killer.
According to Polly Nelson, Bundy’s post-conviction counsel, who appears in the docuseries:
[Yale psychiatrist] Dr. Lewis was extremely confident that there was something unique about Ted’s brain that had led to this. Some unique brain chemistry, or even a tumor, in a critical location that blocked his empathy.
This is an important point for a true crime series to make because, as we know, the media tends to link crime and mental illness in a cause-and-effect sort of way. It’s disappointing we need to keep saying this, but the majority of people with mental illness are not murderers.
Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer” makes some notable missteps. However, in a society that consistently tells people with mental illness to be ashamed of who they are, it’s almost comforting to see Netflix assert that Bundy’s behavior and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.
Header image via Netflix