By Julien Godawatta
CN: ableist language, psychosis, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia
I remember when headsets became a thing – suddenly people could speak on the phone without physically holding one to their ear. To those of us who hadn’t made the technological leap, it seemed rather strange and almost disconcerting; it looked like they were talking to themselves and that made us uncomfortable. A popular comment, usually flavoured with discomfort, was that it made people look ‘crazy’. There is a part of me that finds it difficult to voice criticism over something as seemingly innocuous. Remarks like this are voiced without much filter, and are so comfortably fitted into ordinary conversation that I have caught myself saying similar, despite the sting I feel when I hear them. Yet, words and how we use them both influence and reflect our ways of thought, and that comment is among many that hide a harmful message.
“Remarks like this are voiced without much filter, and are so comfortably fitted into ordinary conversation that I have caught myself saying similar, despite the sting I feel when I hear them”
‘Crazy’ is a very versatile buzzword. Like ‘insane’ and ‘mental’ it is a convenient label for expressing surprise or discomfort in a snappy, sensational manner. As a result it tends to tie erratic, unpredictable, sometimes even threatening attributes to our perception of illness — think of how you’d describe the Joker from Batman, or picture calling someone ‘crazy’ for their sudden outbursts of anger. Whether or not ‘crazy’ is used to describe mental illness seriously in some given context does not make or break this effect. Its choice over a blend of other words, such as erratic and unpredictable, is not only made because it is easier, but because the pizzazz it carries is handy and appealing — it hints at the areas of mental illness we enjoy dramatising so much.
As with many labels, these terms tend to trivialise matters. Take “I went mental after losing my keys” – losing keys certainly causes distress, but it does not generate an illness. Whilst ‘mental’ is not used here to describe literal loss of sanity, it is suggestive; it infuses the narrative of losing a possession with troubling images of mental health problems. By bringing illness to this level, the sentence contributes to the belief that mental disorders are a more volatile issue than other medical problems. This effect is seen throughout the use of these buzzwords — they narrow “craziness” down to more superficial, situational issues. It is important to remember that whilst mental illness might manifest behaviourally, it remains invisible at heart. Allowing the ordinary person to off-handedly diagnose what they believe to be symptoms of illness validates these reductive statements, stripping such disorders of their complexity.
“It would be odd to use the word ‘crazy’ to describe symptoms of depression, but it is easily tossed around to describe possible signs of psychosis”
From a semantic point, ‘craziness’ is often tied to things that do not make sense or are beyond control. To call an idea ‘crazy’ is to dismiss it as irrational; to describe a situation as ‘crazy’ is to say it is out of hand; to call someone ‘crazy’ is to bunch together behaviour deemed absurd. In fact, the first synonym for ‘nonsense’ on thesaurus.com is ‘craziness’. This is something that people suffering from a mental illness pick up on. It suggests certain illnesses are too much effort to deal with, or should even be avoided, leading those in need to feel alienated. I say “certain illnesses” because these words also separate problems now often discussed, such as depression and specific forms of anxiety, from ones still awkwardly muted, like delusions, hallucinations, or mania. It would be odd to use the word ‘crazy’ to describe symptoms of depression, but it is easily tossed around to describe possible signs of psychosis. This divide is doubly damaging; it pushes illnesses that are not seen as ‘crazy’ into a more mild category (i.e. ‘not ill enough’), and it strengthens the stigma towards those that are, even if only subconsciously so.
It is tempting to brand this all as hypercriticism or oversensitivity, but when we make associations in language, we often create new connotations. This web of words is usually a healthy one — it weaves life into language. However, the recycling of these ableist buzzwords inside ordinary conversation creates misunderstanding and stigma: symptoms are channelled through language into situations which do not relate to actual illness, encouraging people to associate psychiatric problems with traits that are fundamentally different. This is precisely how the term ‘schizo’ grew as slang for ‘a dangerous person’, or as a blatantly incorrect synonym for ‘multiple-personality’. It is also how ‘mad’ came to mean ‘angry’, how ‘spastic’ bonded with ‘clumsy’, and how ‘retarded’ developed into ‘foolish’. These are all terms which, through usage, warp and trivialise a medical condition, ultimately harming those affected.
“In this time of progress, of learning to respect others, it is important we tackle as many facets as we can. Being aware that the usage of these labels is ableist, or at the very least offensive to a large group of people, marks a step forward”
Despite the recent and admirable wave of effort that is being put into battling preconceptions, there are many circles in which this awfully widespread use of ‘craziness’ is little mentioned. It proves discussion is not yet uniform across mental health issues. In this time of progress, of learning to respect others, it is important we tackle as many facets as we can. Being aware that the usage of these labels is ableist, or at the very least offensive to a large group of people, marks a step forward. Besides, the English language is rich and plentiful — it is almost a shame to not make use of other, usually more appropriate words. ‘Eccentric’, ‘irrational’, ‘intense’ or even ‘bizarre’ are better possible choices — not only are they less offensive, they also offer a clearer description. The list goes on. This is not to say this terminology should be banned altogether. It can be argued that these words also serve to accentuate good traits, for example “that painting is crazy beautiful, you’re insanely talented”. By restricting our use of these words to positive emphasis, we push language forward, and with it our ways of thinking about mental illness.