People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Watch your mouth!

I’ve been all over the internet in the past hour, reading what other people have written about psychiatric terms used as slurs, insults, or jokes, and then I read comments. Many hundreds of comments.

People have strong feelings on this matter. And by strong I mean violent. I’m stunned by the vitriol out there about whether or not people have the right to use words like psychotic, schizophrenic, and bipolar however they want.

To which I say, of course we do. Every one of us has the right to say anything we damn well please. We are free to call our moody cats or our cranky neighbors bipolar. We may certainly call every angry, unpleasant, confusing, or mean person we meet psychotic. If we meet a person whose behavior seems unusual or confusing, we are allowed to say he’s schizophrenic. When a friend seems unusually thorough when she washes her hands, we can choose to joke that she has OCD.

We have that right, every one of us. You, me, and the guy walking his dog down the street. We can say what we want.

But let’s talk about the rights of people who have mental illness. Do they have the right to move through their lives without hearing their struggles made into jokes? Or made into put-downs?

The two rights are at odds with each other, so whose do we honor?

That’s where the “we” part ends because we, individually, get to choose our own words. I choose Carter’s right to not be made a joke over my own desire to pop off with certain wise ass remarks.

*          *          *          *          *

I’m not entirely sure how I’m perceived by the people who read this blog, so just in case you don’t know I’ll tell you this: I think sacred cows make the very best hamburgers, politeness for the sake of politeness is silly, and political correctness sometimes gets downright ridiculous.

I also believe that I am actively creating the world in which I live. Words are powerful.

I’m struggling to remove the slang language of mental illness from my vocabulary. It’s very entrenched in our culture, so common that it’s invisible.

That invisibility doesn’t make it OK. The fact that “everybody does it” doesn’t make it right.

“Oh, you big whiner. Quit being so damn sensitive. You just have to get used to it.”

The fact that some (or even most) people believe it is a non-issue doesn’t make it so. Lots of people thought the N word was a non-issue.

I’m not naive; I know that, in many ways, we who care about how language affects people with mental illness do have to live with it. “Learning to live with it,” though, only means I’m not going to lose any sleep. I’m still going to help people be aware of their words. I’ll be nice about it, and I won’t nag, but this matters.

This probably won’t change in my lifetime. However, language can and does evolve. I haven’t heard anyone use the words cripple, mongoloid, or midget in many years, and those were all in common use just a few decades ago.

*          *          *          *          *

If you use crazy, psychotic, bipolar, or any other mental illness-related word in my presence? I won’t be offended. Like I said, I totally get it. It doesn’t offend me unless someone puts real hate behind it. What I want from you is this: be aware. Notice how the language of mental illness has invaded our culture. Think about how that minimizes the struggle of millions of people, one or more of whom you may be talking to when you don’t know it.

In spite of what the media tells us, mental illness is not always visible. Even very ill people may have long periods of stability. If you lean over to your co-worker and say of your boss, “She’s totally psychotic today. What’s wrong with her?” and your co-worker happens to be a person living with a psychotic disorder, he’s likely to feel stung.

Is he a whining wimp? You just made a remark that makes a joke of an illness that has probably robbed him of much that you enjoy in your life. Many seriously mentally ill people lose years of their lives to their illnesses during which they are unable to build relationships, careers, and families. Many people who have mental illness can have joyful, productive lives, but the road to that place is on a steeper incline.

Whose rights do we honor?

*          *          *          *          *

Finally, there’s the argument that says, “I can’t censor myself just because I might offend you! How was I supposed to know you have a mental illness/love someone who has mental illness/care about this issue?”

This I don’t understand. I don’t use the N word. Not ever, in any circumstances, no matter what, no matter who is or isn’t listening. Ditto any other racial slur of which I am aware. I’m not censoring myself; I just don’t use words like that, no thought required.

The English language is pretty damn big. There’s always an alternative.

*          *          *          *          *

Someday all of this will change. People will acknowledge and respect mental illnesses and will no more joke about them than about muscular dystrophy, leukemia, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Because mental illness isn’t funny, either.

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51 comments to Watch your mouth!

  • A VERY much needed post. Thanks for being brave and real and honest. We all need to hear it!

  • Superkitty

    This is so true. I was at lunch with a friend and we were discussing recent strangeness with someone we both know, and my friend said, “She’s acting bipolar”. It just stopped me in my tracks. The person in question was acting like a flaky bitchy, and instead the label ‘bipolar’ got tossed out there, because it’s a mental condition. It made me feel about an inch tall.

  • What a great post for Mad Pride Week: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Pride & http://madpridetoronto.blogspot.com/

    I think that (a) people are widely uneducated about the terms and conditions and (b) because of that, it’s easy to pull out a term that we are mostly familiar with because of media portrayals and use it to label someone who isn’t the ‘norm’. (Although that’s another term that is up for questioning…)

    There isn’t an easy answer. I’ve called myself crazy more than once, and not in a cute/happy way. I’ve called someone bi-polar when they might not have been. It’s not easy for professionals to diagnose. I’m still waiting for a consensus from my own various doctors from the past 12 yrs to actually diagnose me with something concrete instead of just ‘might be’ and ‘possibly could be’ and ‘shades of’… So I don’t take too much offense if someone uses a term to label a set of behaviours they witness. They’re likely just as accurate as most doctors.

    • Yes, I think most people are just unaware and have no intention of hurting anyone! And like you said, the words are ubiquitous and easy to use.

      Sigh. Psychiatric diagnosis can be so tedious and difficult. I hope you have an answer soon!

  • In a round about way, it’s a lot like the word “retarded”. A friend who had a child who is mentally retarded pointed out the offensiveness of calling someone a “retard” or “retarded”. I never even realized the potential of that word to offend someone.

    I have never called someone bipolar, but admittedly, I say crazy all.the.time and I have used psychotic on occasion. It took having it pointed out to me to realize that it could bother someone and could be seen as offensive. I will work to remove those words from my vocabulary too.

    My father is disabled and on the rare occasions I hear someone use an offensive word to refer to him, it’s sad and upsetting and it isn’t even about me. I want my child to know that there are words out there that have the potential to harm someone just as greatly as hitting them would and that she shouldn’t use them. There are all different kinds of people in this world and we should try to be kind to them whenever possible because you never know what their background is, who their friends/family are, or what their life is like at that moment. Cliched, I know. But I don’t care.

    • Thank you! I don’t think that’s cliche at all, or if it is, it’s a good one. Helping our kids grow into compassionate, considerate adults is one of the most important things we can do!

  • I like the way you approached this. The sacred cows/hamburgers reference got me in the right mindset to understand where you’re coming from. I share many of the same opinions. I’m not sure I’ve really thought about it…which is sad, because I’m a psych major (not an Italian porn major, contrary to popular belief). When someone uses a reference like that, my mind immediately wanders to what I’ve studied about the illness, but I hadn’t really considered that it does minimize the struggle of people who suffer with the illness…& I’m kinda sad about that. Good post.

    • Oh, good! I know that no one will hear me if I come across as one of those people who just looks around for a reason to climb up on her high horse. In real life, no one would think that because they know the real me – irreverent, sometimes foul-mouthed, and a total smart ass. Here, though, it’s harder because people know this two-dimensional me.

      I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed you aren’t really majoring in Italian porn, but incredibly grateful that you heard what I said. Thank you for that!

  • i love this post. most patients i work with have/had struggles with mental illness of one kind or another. it’s incredibly heart wrenching to see them struggle and to feel “shunned” stared at or what have you in public settings/life in general. it’s really given me a different perspective. believe it or not some health care providers i work w are the biggest ass wipes about commenting about that person needs to go back on their meds or what have you. i like to believe it stems from their own insecurities but it still irritates me.

    • Sigh. I can easily believe that about health care providers. People love to believe that it can only happen to someone else, even medical providers. Those crappy providers are just the obstacles we have to push past to find the devoted, caring ones.

      Thank you for always bringing me such kind words. Love you!

  • @ADrienne – I’m not sure I want a diagnosis. That comes with its own set of issues!

  • Shannon

    Ok first I’ve debated this topic w so many people in life. You are not the first person to discuss it so here is my answer. I don’t care if people use those terms I really don’t. I am bipolar as is my daughter and husband, as well as dealing w OCD for as long as I can remember. I know lots of people that have illnesses and they couldn’t care less if someone used one of the terms in a slang way.

    I find it’s people like you people who don’t have any of the issues who make a big deal about using them.Have you had a person who is bipolar or schizo or OCD or retarded tell you hey don’t say that that’s rude? Seriously sometimes people make things into a bigger issue than what they are.

    Blog about something of importance like that even though the oil might be capped that the oil out there could still destroy floridas beaches and they’re while economy bc they depend on tourism for their money and will be hit harder than any other state that will be affected. See important issues like the livelihood of a whole state.

    I know know you feel really good now after writing this blog entry you Sid a service for all of mankind to get that off your chest sorry nope that’s not true, you only did yourself a favor. If it bothers you and you feel guilty calling someone any of those things thenso be stop using them but don’t try to make others look bad, that’s just gonna reflect on you!!! Remember when you point a finger at someone you have at least 3 of your own pointing back at ya. Well I’m gonna go and the care of my bipolar daughter w my biolar /OCD self and maybe call my legally retarded brother who doesn’t mind the word retard being used!!!! Have a schizophrenic psycho of a day !!!!

    • Good to know that this is not an issue for you.

    • Laura

      As a response to Shannon–I am not generally concerned with being politically correct, however, using these terms the way people do does nothing to negate the stigma we face as people with mental illnesses. We are trying desperately to get the world to understand that bipolar is a diagnosis not a slang term. There isn’t anything cute or funny about having hallucinations or being so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. To suggest that this blog entry isn’t serious misses the point. Perhaps if you read more of the entries you will develop a clearer picture of just what hangs in the balance.

      • I’m pretty sure my new spleen-venting friend will not be back. As you noted, it’s quite clear that she’s never read a word on my blog except for this post.

        So many spleen-venters in the world, like we were talking about on Saturday. Perplexing.

  • d

    Adrienne, you rock. I totally love you and think you are an amazing woman. I know the struggles you face and i am so proud of how you have handled them. The world will never be happy and there will be those that will always be offended, even at the sound of a “hello”. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to keep reading…if they don’t like what they hear, they can stop listening. One mans garbage is another man’s treasure. Stay strong! Mnay hugs! d.

  • I used to work with mentally ill kids and I can’t even imagine using one of those words to describe another (mental status unknown) person. But I do cop to calling my dog Norman Bates and when people ask why I say it’s because he’s psycho. hhhmmm…maybe I’d better stop that.

  • I may have been guilty of using some of the terms about myself recently, with all the medication up heavel. I don’t know if that is what you mean, I honestly have issues so I am confused.

    • I mean using terms for mental illnesses as jokes, or to explain bad behavior. Like if someone is being an asshole, saying instead that he’s psychotic, that sort of thing.

  • Someone above mentioned the use of the word “retarded.” That’s a word that just isn’t in my vocabulary. My aunt is, well, I’m not sure. I think she’d be classified as high functioning autistic or severely learning disabled if such a label were applied to her now. The point is that once she came to live with us, I realized how that word could hurt.

    Similarly, students in my classroom aren’t allowed to utter the phrase “That’s so gay” because of the connotation of that word. They don’t literally mean “that decision is homosexual.” They mean “that decision is stupid.” And eventually, gay comes to be a synonym for stupid, which implies that being gay is stupid or that gay people are stupid. (Whew! That was longer than I intended!)

    So, I try to make it my mission to make my students aware of how their words affect people when they don’t even realize it. I’m guilty of using some of the terms you mentioned here, but thank you for pointing out how these words could be offensive to those suffering or to those whose family members are suffering.
    You’ve just given me more words to teach.

    • I read your comment on my phone this morning when we were on our way to our parent support group, and it was incredibly moving to me. I don’t know why I didn’t think to read it to the group when we got there! Being aware of our language is such a good place to start being aware of people’s feelings and I’m grateful that you’re teaching that to kids.

      And you’re so right; gay begins to mean stupid and psychotic begins to mean weird and angry and so it goes, and marginalization is reinforced in a million tiny ways.

      Thank you!

  • I couldn’t agree more. Words are loaded with meaning. I am certainly not perfect – only in the past few years have I started paying more attention to my use of the word “crazy.” I would never say “retarded” or “gay” but for some reason, “crazy” was acceptable.

    You say we have the right to use the words ..but with that right comes the responsibility to consider *why* we use those words, and why we get so defensive about it when we get called on it. It’s not enough to say because I want to, because it’s my right. There is always a *real* reason we don’t choose other words.

    It’s the separation, the “othering” that is so significant, I think. By putting someone else in what you consider “their place,” be it ‘crazy,’ ‘lame,’ whatever, you are asserting your own – mentally well, able-bodied, therefore OK, whew! – place in the world. Ignoring, head-in-the-sand style, that nobody is perfect, that perfection is unattainable, that everyone in the world is worthy of respect, that any illness – mental or physical – can touch you whether or not you ignore its existence.

    I appreciate the reminder to check myself. (After all, I must tell my kids 10x a day not to call people names.)

    • Clara, you take my breath away. Truly. Yes, the othering. People want so very, very badly to believe that bad things, scary, life-changing things can only happen out there somewhere. We want to believe we are much more powerful than we are.

      When my kids were little, we taught them that hate and stupid were such unkind words that we wouldn’t use them in our house. I even overheard them sometimes with their friends, “When we’re mad, we say we’re mad! We don’t say hate in this house, and I’m not stupid!” It never even crossed my mind, though, to put crazy on that list.

      We live and we learn, right? So, so glad that you are open to hearing.

  • Bravo. Thanks for writing this. molly

  • Although I consider myself to be a pretty aware person, I had never really thought about the impact of the misuse of words/terminology related to mental illness on the people suffering from such conditions.

    This post is eye-opening and definitely one to grow on. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Okay, I have to said I read this whole post and while I agree with your argument I can in no way relate. I don’t think I ever hear people using mental disorder words in a mocking sense. The only word I can think of that gets thrown around there is “sociopathic” though that’s still usually referencing Dexter. Now I’m unsure whether I have somehow avoided groups that used such phrases or whether I’ve been ignorant of their use.

    But I’m going to be thinking about it.

  • I stand on both sides of the issue. I personally have ADHD and suffer from mild bipolar illness. My daughter is ADHD and severely bipolar. My son has Anxiety disorder, ADD and bipolar. My ex husband has severe anxiety disorder bordering on OCD and clinical depression. Every member of my birth family is mentally ill and my cousin’s husband, a man who suffered terribly from mental illness, committed suicide 8 years ago.

    That said, we continually joke amongst ourselves. I take my illness very seriously, I take my medication and make sure my daughter takes hers, but even so, sometimes I just HAVE to laugh at it so that I won’t cry. As I got lost on the way to a restaurant this morning, I laughed with my friend. “Say THANK YOU ADHD for this!” My cousin and sister and I are extremely close, and we crack jokes at each other all the time. In love. And because we just need to make light of how tough it can be.

    Having mental or neurological disorders, loving someone who has mental or neurological disorders, this is a fact of my life. If I couldn’t find the humor in losing my keys 10 times a day or misplacing just about everything, or how much housework I can do when I am manic? I would probably be suicidal.

    Now, if someone else who didn’t know me very well were to describe me in certain terms, I *might* be offended. Or feel ashamed. But when I take control of the words and use them to feel better, that I’m quite OK with.

    • Oh, I’m right there with you. I didn’t address any of that in this post because it would have gotten unwieldy, but yes. Absolutely. We have to laugh! In company with people who we’re close to, who we love and who love us? It’s all different. The laughing and joking is part of surviving. The day I lose my sense of humor is the day I die!

      Read Superkitty’s comment. THAT’S the kind of thing I’m talking about, where someone made her feel like less of a person by using “bipolar” to explain crappy behavior.

  • I work in a hospital. I work with sick, frail people, many of whom need me to help them die free of pain and with dignity. I have held the hands of dying people, embraced their families, argued with unenlightented insurance adjusters in ways that made their pores bleed, and then walked to the nursing station to laugh at the most base of gallows of humor.

    Because if there were no valve, I could not do what I do.

    Despite the suicide in my family, I joke about what is or isn’t about ready to make me slit my wrists. Despite my predeliction towards addiction, I talk about my job motivating my impending alcoholism. And despite working myself into an emotional sweat to help people with dementia, psychoses or any number of conditions towards any kind of function, I will talk about my own rampant Alzheimers disease, my many neuroses or my ever present OCD.

    And I will laugh when others use those terms in manners of lightness or self-deprication.

    But…if you’re someone who mocks, belittles, or denies rights or services to any of those people because of the conditions they have, or thinks that those people are somehow punchlines because they are different…well, your pores will be bleeding along with the insurance adjusters.

    There is humor and there is bigotry. They are not the same.

    • I completely agree. Gallows humor is part of how we survive. But of course it depends on context and among strangers or casual acquaintances, you just never know what the people around you might be struggling with.

  • If you stop to ponder for a moment, there are a stunning number of words that we use inappropriately. Things that most of us don’t notice until it becomes salt in a wound of one sort or another. For example: words like “retarded” used to roll out of my mouth – like most people – until I found out that my beautiful, perfect, sweet daughter has a 40% change of being “retarded”. Until I was told that my son was going to be born with Down’s Syndrome (he wasn’t). When its you, or your child or someone else that you love those terms (ALL of them, not just those refering to mental illnesses), they aren’t so amusing. We could all do with a little “thinke before you speak” if you ask me. Just IMHO.

    • Yup. I always think of what I told my kids when they were little. They would get mad at each other and scream, “I hate you!” I always taught them that, if you’re mad, say you’re mad! If you think someone is weird, creepy, moody, crabby, scary, or whatever, say THAT. Don’t use a painful and difficult real condition because who knows who you’ll hurt?

  • I think the same could go for addicts. How many times as a teen did I say, “What’s wrong with you crack head?” Until a close relative of mine was hospitalized for addiction and another relative was murdered over a drug deal. Now I choose my words differently. Yes, we have the freedom to say anything we want, but there are certain limits of respect that you can cater to as well.
    (First time reading your blog, and a great post to begin with)

  • my mother is a true sociopath. but I also hate my mother. she made my life a living hell. so when I call my mother a sociopath, I say it with complete disdain.

    but I would never call someone a sociopath in a slang or joking way. it’s too real for me.

    I think people who don’t have a personal connection to something like that don’t understand the power of those words.

    I am sensitive to the word gay used to mean something stupid or lame, for example. I think we all need to practice thinking a little more sensitively before we speak.

    • Oh, wow. I can’t imagine how painful that must being, having a mother who is a sociopath. Yeah, I’m sure you never want to hear something that has hurt you so deeply used in a light or joking way.

  • You’ve done such a wonderful job of describing the difference between explaining and censoring. My son has albinism and I have similar feelings about the word “albino”. While it’s not a life-threatening condition* for my son, it is a life-altering one and I don’t think it’s unreasonable expect a little appreciation of that.

    Having read my tweets, you’d probably guess that I’m a determined foe of censorship. But I’m also not shy about politely explaining the connotations of the “A” word and why some might find it offensive (while others don’t) just so the person really understands how their words might be perceived. I never get angry or defensive in these situations and I certainly would never demand, or even expect, someone else to stop using the word. I find that most people will listen to what I have to say in the spirit I intend.

    As you mentioned, it’s primarily about intent. It’s pretty easy to tell when a word is used innocently and when it’s said with hatred, anger or judgment — but that applies to ANY words, not just the ones that we consider our hot-buttons. In fact, silent stares and whispers are much worse than hearing the word and are almost always dealt with harshly by me because that shit is never OK.

    Thanks for another wonderful and perfectly shaded blog post.

    * Sadly it is a life-threatening condition in some African countries both because of the inaccessibility of sun protection and because of the grisly fact that people with albinism are literally slaughtered so that their bones can be sold for their “magic powers”.

    • Oh, thank you! Yes, I’m absolutely opposed to censorship, too. I don’t want to control anyone’s language, or for anyone to censor mine. Just as there’s a big difference between misuse based on lack of awareness and use in a judgmental or hateful way, there’s also a huge difference between an angry demand and a respectful request!

      Sadly, many people are very defensive and don’t understand that. They hear even my most careful request (and unless you are in my home, I would never presume to try to demand anything!) and a demand. I’m incredibly grateful that so many people have heard this the way I intended it.

      I’m glad, too, to hear that you’ve had a similar experience. I think that most people want to be kind. The people who don’t want that are very loud, unfortunately!

      I had no idea that your son has albinism. How old is he? You must have to work very hard to keep him safe in the sun! So sad that there is also pointing and whispering. Sigh. So frustrating that so many people have never learned some basic manners.

      • Actually, the sun protection isn’t much different than for any young kid. Always have sunscreen, cap & sunglasses handy and it’s no problem. Sadly, these things aren’t readily available in so many countries.

        He just finished kindergarten & will be 7 in October. He’s done wonderfully socially (which remains our biggest concern): well-liked, seen as a leader by his peers, not afraid of older kids and really no taunting or teasing based on his condition. I actually forgot to pick him up at the bus stop once, so he had to stay on as the bus picked up the Jr. high & high school kids and he had the best time.

        He’s super smart, so academics aren’t an issue in general, but as he’s learning to read, his attendant visual impairment is becoming more noticeable. He’ll be learning to use optical and electronic magnifiers this year to help with those challenges. He also has some orientation & mobility issues and is learning to compensate for those as well.

        In general, we just see him as our kid and the albinism never really enters into our perception of who he is and what he’s about. And that brings to mind another, often over-looked, issue with the “offensive” words: when they’re used as nouns they are so horribly objectifying and dismissive, like whatever condition they apply to is the sole definition of what or who the recipient is.

  • I wish I could say I’d never done these things, never thrown out words in an attempt to be funny or witty, but I can tell you that in the last few years, after seeing others be hurt by the same words, I am very careful about my vocabulary. Most people would never deliberately hurt someone by using them, it’s just the ignorance of not knowing how hurtful those words can be and how inappropriate they are.

    I do think (at least in my world) it seems to be getting better. And hopefully by the time my children are old enough to talk and interact with others, they won’t even know that words like “bipolar” were ever used in the way you describe.

  • […] sure that’s not the last I’ll say about that either. – Adrienne at No Points for Style posted about the misuse of psychaitric terms, it’s interesting and her blog is moving. – I have all sorts of links, names, books, […]

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