Stigma, denial and misunderstanding: The real tragedy of “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel”

On its face, Joe Berlinger’s recent docu-series “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” promises to be a story of intrigue and mystery. The first installment of the four-part series focuses on the 2013 death of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student on a road trip, searching for meaning, place and connection. But upon further consideration, “Crime Scene” is yet another example of the media’s tendency to capitalize on mental illness for popular entertainment. This brand of exploitation poses particular dangers for people of color, like Lam. 

“Crime Scene’s” setting is the notorious Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, and there are several scenes in the series that suggest Lam, who was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder I, is mentally unwell. At one point, footage from an elevator security camera shows Lam repeatedly entering and exiting the elevator and conversing with someone off-camera. In this scene, it’s plausible that Lam experienced paranoia and even delusions. Throughout the series, detectives reveal that Lam visited a live taping of a TV show in L.A. and wrote a “rambling letter” to the host, demanding the security guards deliver it. They deemed her threatening and escorted her off the set. At The Cecil, Lam left threatening sticky notes on her roommate’s bunk bed and was promptly relocated to a single. And at the very least, her Tumblr page indicated a troubled mental state. “I HAVE TO GET SOME SLEEP OR I WILL CRASH and I am so scared of how big a crash this one will be,” she wrote in one post. “Today has been one of those blah days full of apathy. Really dangerous too; I can see myself feeling suicidal and it always scares me when I start to feel suicidal,” she said in another.  

Then Lam disappeared. After a 19-day missing persons investigation by police, a hotel maintenance worker found Lam’s body floating in a water tank on the roof of the hotel. After a thorough investigation, the Los Angeles County coroner ruled that Lam died of an accidental drowning as a result of her unmanaged mental illness.  

Detectives also uncovered that Lam was on a cocktail of four different psychiatric medications, and during an interview, the coroner explained that the autopsy indicated she stopped taking them. Lam’s sister later confirmed that Lam would stop taking her medication from time to time, always leading to erratic and dangerous mood swings. 

Despite these details, certain “internet sleuths” peddled elaborate conspiracy theories to account for Lam’s death. Their refusal to accept the conclusions reached by the detectives and coroner reflects a larger ignorance of the ways mental illness manifests. Worst of all, the players in “Crime Scene,” such as the hotel staff, the police and the show’s host, ignored Lam’s cries for help and reiterated the belief that mental health crises do not warrant the same attention as physical health crises — a mindset that particularly threatens people of color. 

Misunderstanding Bipolar Disorder 

After the discovery of Lam’s body in the hotel water tank, the cadre of so-called “web sleuths” began to obsess over the grim details of Lam’s death. An online cult formed, and the sleuths collectively hashed out theories of what might have happened to Lam. 

Despite her symptoms, the internet sleuths refused to believe Lam’s condition contributed to her death. They debated over whom Lam was speaking with in the elevator, and they alleged that Bipolar disorder cannot cause hallucinations. “I have never read anything that says that those who are in a bipolar state would go and do something like this,” insisted one web sleuth in the final episode. “I don’t believe that her mental state was her cause of death,” said yet another.  

This reflects a larger misunderstanding of how Bipolar disorder I can manifest.  According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, there are seven different types of Bipolar disorder. Lam had the less-common Bipolar I, which can cause paranoia, intrusive thoughts, heightened impulsivity, self-harm, mania or psychosis. Many people do not associate these symptoms with Bipolar disorder and may discount individuals that experience them. In the case of the web sleuths, this ignorance fueled their desire to uncover an alternative explanation for Lam’s behavior and her death. This instinct is dangerous because it can reiterate misinformation regarding Bipolar disorder. 

The media’s habit of misrepresenting mental illness and society’s ignorance around symptoms of Bipolar disorder are perhaps why no one thought to help Lam when she was clearly struggling. When Lam scrawled the letter to the show host and frantically demanded security give it to them, they did not call 911 but simply escorted her off property.  

This brand of dismissal happens all the time, especially to people of color like Lam. And though mental health-related 911 calls are plentiful – in Chicago alone, dispatch receives over 150 daily – unprepared police officers too often respond to such calls. A 2016 study published by the Police Executive Research Forum states that officers spend a medium 58 hours per year on firearms training and only eight on de-escalation and crisis intervention; yet they still respond to mental health crises instead of trained mental health professionals.  

This presents particular dangers to people of color dealing with mental illnesses. Last year, two police officers shot and killed 27-year-old Walter Wallace, a man with Bipolar Disorder in Philadelphia. Chicagoan Daniel Prude, whom police murdered in Rochester, New York last fall, had a history of depression, suicidal ideation and drug use. In 2014, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, who was 17 years old and experiencing a mental health crisis, 16 times. And at the end of 2020, a Pennsylvania state police officer shot and killed Christian Hall.  

Twenty-two percent of those killed by police have a diagnosable mental health issue, and those with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to a study released by The Treatment Advocacy Center. In Chicago, rampant police brutality motivated activists to develop policing alternatives more conducive to de-escalating mental health crises 

A new co-responder program, outlined by the Chicago Department of Health, will be piloted in 2021. The program offers a tripartite model for crisis response, with a team of officers, clinicians and paramedics to respond to a call. The plan will be used in two districts this year, and its efficacy will be measured against a number of variables like the portion of violent outcomes, health care cost savings and the number of repeat callers to 911. 

Similar work is occurring in Eugene, Oregon. The Whitebird Clinic, based in Eugene, has used a co-responder model for decades with great success. The program is called CAHOOTS: Crisis Assistance Helping Out on The Streets. Established in 1989, CAHOOTS flourished under its alternative model to mental health-related 911 calls. White Bird Clinic, which runs the program, states “CAHOOTS team members are not law enforcement officers and do not carry weapons.” Eugene, which has a population of 156,000, saw a total of 105,000 calls made to public safety. Out of those calls, CAHOOTS assisted in 24,000, and police backup was needed only 150 times

“Police became the default response for all of these situations,” said Timothy Black, the director of consulting at Whitebird Clinic. Black attested to the common belief that mental illnesses indicate amorality. He calls this viewing mental illness through “the morality lens.” “When you have a cross-section of the nation that’s in a position of power, and they are viewing all of these struggles through that morality lens, it helps reinforce that perception that it’s all just about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” Black said. 

Programs like CAHOOTS are great first steps to ending stigmas attached to mental illnesses. In the media, campaigns such as the Indianapolis Colts’ Kicking the Stigma, and Demi Lovato’s “Be Vocal, Speak Up” raise awareness of mental illness and counter harmful stigmas. But while aligning yourself with a diagnosis and saying “I struggle too” is bold, it is not enough. We need to better understand what these illnesses look like when we see their symptoms, and we must know how to offer help and support. It isn’t enough to acknowledge that things must change, we need to be equipped with better playbooks for response, so that more people do not unnecessarily die. 

Featured image: The exterior of the Cecil Hotel/Netflix