Recently I told my flatmate what I thought of the word ‘crazy’ in the context of mental illness. Soon after, he told me that he doesn’t say it anymore, and when he hears it, he challenges its use. And now his friend doesn’t use it either. And this gave me an idea.
I’m giving this whole blogging thing a go.
“Apparently artistic people are more likely to go crazy”, said a very caring and good friend of mine, genuinely intrigued by this statement. I told her I didn’t know what she meant, and I think she thought I was being unnecessarily critical and pedantic. Another friend of mine argued that “everyone knows what it means, it’s just a useful way of communicating”. Personally, I find this worrying as I believe that the term ‘crazy’ doesn’t have a behavioural referent. Seeing it as a useful communicator perpetuates a stereotypical and incorrect image of those suffering from mental health conditions.
Firstly, it groups every mental health problem into one category. As with physical health problems, there is a wide variety of symptoms and severity within mental disorder. Secondly, the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ‘crazy’ – ‘mad, especially as manifested in wild or aggressive behaviour' is so unapt that it would be comical if it wasn’t so damaging. This description is so far from the fatigued nature of depression, to the social withdrawal often exhibited in schizophrenia, to the internal struggle that characterises so many disorders - eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder to name a few. Many people do not understand mental disorders, or know who around them is mentally ill, partly because the struggle is so often within the person. Yet, many people still maintain that ‘crazy’, defined by ‘wild and aggressive behaviour’ is in fact a suitable word. To me, this is nonsensical.
“But people who are mentally ill refer to themselves as crazy so they can’t mind that much” said another friend, who seems so often to play devil’s advocate. But the point is that people suffering, perhaps struggling with the demands of everyday life, shouldn’t feel as if they have to label themselves as ‘crazy’. Not only is it hurtful and possibly damaging to recovery, it is incorrect. It is not their word, it is society’s.
Perhaps the use of these words wouldn’t be SO bad if the majority of people were also clued up on mental illness. But, although things are changing for the better, it is still somewhat of a taboo. And if no one has ever told you about mental illness and you or no one close to you has experienced it, then how would you know? But it staggers and angers me that in 2014, people unquestioningly believe that mental illness is a ‘topic’ only relevant to the study of Psychology (the people that, when I tell them I study Psychology, ask ‘Are you going to psychoanalyze me?’ or refuse to accept that ‘No, no, I do not know what you’re thinking’, - I am not Freud or a psychic - but that’s a rant for another day).
Mr devil’s advocate also proclaimed: “You can’t educate the WHOLE country about mental health – it would be too expensive”. Mental health education is not something extra that might be good to learn about. It is essential. In high school, I learnt how to resuscitate someone, but no one ever taught me how to talk to someone contemplating suicide.
You could be living with someone with a mental health problem, but not know – either because their behaviour is hidden due to fear of stigma, or because without a concept of something, you simply cannot recognise it.
Mental health issues should be a consistent part of the curriculum, and there is space for it. The amount of Citizenship lessons I went through in High School - the only thing I remember is that if you’re going to eat sweets, it’s better for your teeth to eat them all at the same time. Now, that’s kind of bloody useless, is it not? In another class, we practiced handshakes for at least half an hour – I was 14 and still found the whole concept just a little bit funny. Again, a little bit bloody useless. Mental health can be taught in these lessons, and when you’re talking to children about something important, something related to people, and something which is actually pretty interesting, they might take more notice than I did throughout five years of filling out worksheets about handshakes and toothpaste in Citizenship.
But until mental health is taught in schools and lectured on in universities, perhaps we can start by opening our eyes to the words we use every day. Next time you, or someone else uses the word ‘crazy’ (or similar) in the context of mental illness, pick up on it. And say something. Correct yourself and bring up the topic with them.