INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE AND MENTAL ILLNESS

In my mental health editorial last issue, I talked a bit about my experience as a person with mental illness in the 5C community.  I got wonderful responses from my fellow classmates, with the main question being what they could do to help. They understood and empathized with the lack of resources, but really wanted to know what they could feasibly do to help create a community that was supportive and accepting of people with mental health issues.  So, I thought that I could outline language that gets tossed around about mental health, and address both actual definitions of words and words or usages that are considered insensitive or outdated. Most of these terms encourage the dichotomy of “normal” people and mentally ill people, trivialize the suffering of people with mental illness, and/or imply lack of autonomy or control on the part of the mentally ill person. This is problematic not only because it shames people with mental illness, but also because these discourses and the language used to advance them are what lead to the medical and psychological abuse and criminalization of mentally ill people for centuries. I encourage readers to inform themselves about these words and analyze their intent when they have used this words in the past. Perhaps it can be illuminating for some.

Crazy: While I am not personally an  advocate for the complete abolition of the word “crazy,” I do think that the word gets tossed around often to describe people, which really offensive. Harris O’Malley’s piece on The Huffington Post, “On Labeling Women ‘Crazy’” astutely pointed out the misogynist agenda behind calling women crazy as one that wants to dismiss women’s feelings and perpetuate the idea that women are incapable of rationality. While this is a great point, I would take it a step further and assert that the word “crazy” can in many instances be used to infantilize and delegitimize the actions, opinions, and behaviors of people with mental illness. When someone usually uses the word “crazy” to describe something, the thing they are describing is supposed to be so far from the norm that it is not taken seriously or not considered a real option. “Crazy” is used to create a divide between those with mental illness and those without it, and assumes that those without it are more capable and rational that those with it. It is true that people with mental illness tend to have different needs than those without mental illness. But by labeling people with mental illness as “crazy,” it perpetuates the association of mental illness with incapability and volatility, and reduces people to their diagnosis, instead of considering all aspects of their personality.
I personally like to refer to myself as “crazy” in jest to lighten my discussions with my therapists and doctors or family. But I would be offended if others called me “crazy,” even in a joking way. If you hear someone around you with mental illness using the word “crazy,” ask what their preference is, and err on the side of not using it. This also goes for words like “insane,” “loopy,” “mental,” “mad,” and other synonyms.
Bipolar/Manic-Depression: This mental illness that is characterized by periods of mania and periods of depression. Because these mood periods are far more pronounced than everyday changes in mood for most people, they are called poles, and because there are two poles, the disorder is called bipolar. This disorder used to be called manic depression, and people with this disorder were called manic depressives. However, “manic depression” sometimes has negative and other stigmatizing connotations, so many people with bipolar disorder prefer the term “bipolar disorder.” The word “bipolar” has been co-opted by many who misunderstand bipolar disorder. I often hear “bipolar” used to describe flakey people who change their minds often, the weather, or themselves when they have everyday changes in mood. These are not correct uses of the term and are, a lot of the time, really insensitive. People with bipolar disorder don’t change their opinions or perceptions at the drop of a hat. Their moods are subject to change, yes, but their dependability or rationality doesn’t change with their moods. To use “bipolar” in this way implies that people with bipolar disorder aren’t reliable or invalidates their opinions, seeing as the thinking is that their opinions are just going to change in a few minutes. This misusage contributes to both trivializing the very real suffering of those with bipolar disorder and to disregarding the autonomy and opinions of those with bipolar disorder.
Mania/Maniac: A maniac is a person who is undergoing a period of mania. The word maniac is firstly problematic because it reduces a person with mental illness to one of their symptoms, which is both dehumanizing and ignores all other aspects of their personalities. Mania is a symptom of some mental illnesses, particularly bipolar disorder, though many people are unaware of its meaning. When someone is in a state of mania, they are in a state opposite of depression. Their mood is elevated to abnormally high levels, and causes behaviors that are not normal for said person. While everyone gets “hyper” or excited once in a while, for people with bipolar disorder in particular, episodes of mania are states where said person has breaks with reality, including hallucinations, racing thoughts, delusions of grandeur, or little to no sleep. Mania is a symptom, not a description of a person. Additionally, the word “maniac” is associated with terms or phrases like “homicidal maniac” or “driving like a maniac.” Indeed it can be scary for people who experience mania and those who care about them to go through or witness them go through an episode of mania, it is wrong to think that people in manic episodes are so volatile that they would commit murder at random or have road rage more than the average person. These negative associations with this word also overlap with a lot of associations about the word hysteria, and when many people think of the word “mania,” they would use hysteria to describe it, which again is not an accurate description.
Hysteria/hysterical: We can, right off the bat, discuss the misogynic origins of the word hysteria, which comes from the Greek word for “uterus.” The word was used in the 19th century as a medical term to describe any symptoms a woman had that questioned or challenged male authority. High sex drive, depression, contrariness, etc. were all symptoms of “hysteria,” a uniquely female disease (which consequently lead to the invention of the vibrator, so at least we got something worthwhile out of the whole thing). Because of this previous — and misguided ­— use of “hysteria,” people often still associate the word “hysteria” with mania or mental illness in general, which is troubling. This word has an incredibly infantilizing history and connotation, so for it to be used in any way to describe any time of mental illness is not only wrong, but the trivialization of the symptoms of mental illness(es) has lead to the criminalization and abuse of people with mental illness, simply for being mentally ill.