(photography by Dan Nevins)
“Enough is enough, and it’s time to stop condoning this offensive rhetoric.”
“I think I’m crazy.”
The first time I said it was during a phone call with my grandfather. I was eight years old, on medication for ADHD, in cognitive behavioral therapy for sensory processing disorder, and my social anxiety just starting to bud. It felt like my mind and emotions were always in an overwhelming rush, and I couldn’t keep calm enough to stop myself from crashing. My self-confidence and assurance were crushed to death under the only vocabulary I had to describe these feelings: “weird”, “annoying”, and “crazy”.
I cried when I told my grandfather. It was like I was confessing some big, horrible secret, and apologizing for being such a disappointment. I was ashamed of the idea of not being “normal”, of not growing up “functional”, and forever being “wired-wrong”.
After considering my news for a moment, my grandfather finally spoke, “I’m going to tell you something, everyone is a little crazy. Everyone has that inside of them, and that’s okay.”
His message remains to be one of the most relieving and eye-opening things someone has ever said to be about my mental health. It has reminded me that I’m not the first or last person to feel the way I felt, or to struggle with a diagnosis (or multiple) from a young age. In fact the National Institute for Mental Health* declares that over 20% of the population of US children will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, and that percentage doesn’t even account for diagnoses that do not meet the Institute’s criteria to be considered “debilitating.” However, we aren’t often shown how common mental illness is, nor are we given the correct vocabulary to address the subject.
Though many people have begun discussing mental health more openly, negative rhetoric surrounding the topic is still widely accepted in society. It is embedded in our language, and condoned by a population that is reared to believe these words are suitable to use. I knew at a young age that “crazy” was associated with disorders and diagnoses, and even my consoling grandfather repeated the term back to me.
However, there’s a whole list of commonly used words and phrases that are offensive and stigmatizing to those with a mental illness. There are plenty reasons we should keep this list out of the conversation on mental health:
Of course we’ll start with my "favorite" for some context. Crazy is a word with a long, sordid past of being used to stigmatize mental illness. The word first appeared in 1570, and originally meant “diseased” or “sickly”. The word then evolved in the 1580’s to mean “full of cracks or flaws", and then changed again in 1610 to mean “of unsound mind”. The first definition of the word in the dictionary today? “Mentally deranged; demented; insane.”
While it appeared earlier in 1550, the word Insane also originated as a word used to describe someone who is mentally ill. While it’s history is not as precise, it has been associated with definitions of “suffering” and an “out of order” brain.
Why it’s Problematic: They’re terms that were specifically designed centuries ago to target people who have struggled with their mental health, and criticize their state of mind and mental functionality. Both insinuate that those with a mental illness are “flawed”, unhinged from reality, and either dangerous persons or victims. I think it’s safe to say we need to end the “crazy” talk. That also goes for nutcase, lunatic, wacko, psychotic/pscyho, or any other name designed with the sole purpose to to make fun of or ostracize mental illness.
2. “Normal”/ “Weird” or “Not Normal”
While Weird doesn’t actually have any historical or literal connection to mental health, the third definition of the word Normal is: “approximately average in any psychological trait,as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment” not to mention “free from any mental disorder; sane.”
Why it’s Problematic: Above is an established, printed definition for Normal, which makes this stigmatized language all the worse. The definition insinuates that being Weird is being not-normal, and this somehow associates with people who experience psychological problems. It’s also hard to argue with content that has been defined and distributed by a widely accepted resource, like the dictionary.
The idea of “normal” is vastly flawed in general, as it seeks to argue that there is a common standard or type of people, and that those people do not have mental illness. Or rather cannot have mental illness, otherwise they cannot meet the standard of society and the general population. What the definition leaves out of context, is the 43.8 MILLION* adults who experience a mental illness each year, in the U.S. alone.
Leaving out that rather large detail? That’s the only thing “weird” here.
3. “Broken”, “Wired wrong”, “Not right in the head”
Do I really need to explain?
Why it’s Problematic: It’s one thing to discuss a diagnosis as a chemical, hormonal, or biological imbalance or problem in the brain, and addressing it as a real health issue, not just an issue of the individual. It’s another thing to use that idea to label someone as dysfunctional, or insinuate that they were “incorrectly assembled”, and need to be fixed like some sort of object.
We’re not machinery, so don’t talk about the mentally ill population like they need to be sent to a mechanic.
4. “I couldn’t even tell you were ________”
I actually got this a lot as a kid, stuff like:
“I didn’t know you were ADHD??
“How are you so smart?”
“But you don’t seem hyperactive?”
Or my least favorite: “Nooo, you can’t be ADHD, because _______”
Why it’s Problematic: Do not assume everyone is going to have the same symptoms, or that just because someone has a positive quality, they can’t have a disorder. That’s very unfair, as it suggests someone with a mental illness is not supposed to be like any other person, with good qualities and the ability to function “normally”. Talk about RUDE. Don’t think you know every sign, trait, or experience of someone with any mental illness, just because of what you’ve read or heard. Instead, if you’re really curious or confused, try asking informed, polite questions (if the person is comfortable discussing it, of course).
5. He/she/they are a [insert right or wrong diagnosis here]
No. No. No. No. Just No.
Why it’s problematic: This is a two parter, so bear with me:
“Hi my name is: not the same as my diagnosis”
It is never okay to define someone by a mental illness, whether or not that person is open and accepting of their illness. It’s not your business to air to the world, but more importantly he/she/they are a person first and foremost. They are not the physical embodiment of a diagnosis, or even their own struggles with mental health. While they may be brave and proud to share their story, that doesn’t mean they want to be introduced by their personal, psychological information.
Do not address someone by any illness, especially one they are not diagnosed with.
This one is honestly unacceptable, and incredibly frustrating because it’s so prevalent. People often seem to think it’s okay to call someone a mental illness they’ve heard of based on their own criteria, almost always as an insult.
“Is he on the spectrum or something?”
“You’re acting really bipolar”
“It’s like she has multiple personalities.”
Not okay! No excuses, don’t do it. No diagnosis should be ever be used as an insult or put-down, and especially not against those who are affected by any mental illness. Having a diagnosis is not a negative thing, and it isn’t a personality trait. Again, never use someone’s mental health to define them, and definitely don’t use a random illness to define any personal qualms or misunderstandings you have with them. Think of it this way, if you use this kind of rhetoric you’re misusing medical terms, in order to mock, label, or criticize someone with a real, medical condition.
Shelling out diagnoses as adjectives also undermines the experiences of mental health patients by painting them as “all the same”. Not everyone has had the same journey, the same struggle, or the same outcome, and it’s important to recognize that everyone handles their mental health in their own way, for their own reasons. We’re individuals, like any other population of people.
The truth is everyone in this world feels and perceives things differently, and has to take time in their life to understand their emotions. Who has a right to label anybody’s experiences? With such a large population of people with diagnoses in the world, this kind of negative language hurts millions of people, and consistently tells them they are not accepted, even though they make up a huge portion of society. Enough is enough, and it’s time to stop condoning this offensive rhetoric. These aren’t just “Sticks and Stones”, these are stigmas.
"Any Disorder Among Children." National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web.
Crazy. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 17, 2017 from Dictionary.com
Insane. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Dictionary.com
Normal. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2017 from Dictionary.com
National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web.NAMI. "Mental Health by the Numbers."