“I’m not going to try to get into the mind of Donald Trump because I don’t think there’s a lot of space there. I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
This excerpt may be nearing two years old, but its impact is timeless; using words like “kook” and “crazy” to refer to a person whose very existence is controversial reinforces society’s overwhelmingly negative outlook on mental health.
Though it may seem harmless and insignificant in the moment, our language dictates how we see the world and the people living in it. More specifically, the meanings we assign to words, however implicit, influence our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, and this concept is gravely important to remember during our discussions of mental illness.
At some point, we have to acknowledge that our habit of using terms that refer to mental health conditions to describe ignorant, violent, alarming or morally reprehensive behaviors trivializes mental illnesses, and it also contributes to the stigma that surrounds people living with them.
As senator Graham’s comment suggests, this issue encompasses more than casual, offhand conversations between acquaintances. One of the leading sources of public opinion is entertainment and news media, which, according to the CNS Drugs Journal, frequently provides dramatic and distorted images of mental illnesses that “emphasize dangerousness, criminality and unpredictability.”
What makes this revelation so much more damaging is knowing that these images are shaped not only by journalists themselves, but by the quotes they choose to use in their pieces, especially those from police, family and community members.
As reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, such quotes often describe people as abnormal; imply that people are helpless with little chance of recovery; use derogatory language like “crazy,” “deranged,” or “insane;” or depict mental illness as the defining characteristic of an individual, using phrases like “drug addict” or “paranoid schizophrenic.”
These patterns dehumanize and “other” people in our communities, thereby reflecting the vast amount of interpersonal work that has to be done before we can fully support them. Because so many people receive their health news from the media, and media models public reactions, we have unknowingly created a culture that impairs self-esteem, self-care, help-seeking behaviors, medication adherence and overall recovery.
In other words, people are so scared to be labeled as “emotionally disturbed,” “psychotic,” or worse that they won’t talk about their mental health at all. They then routinely develop the belief that mental illnesses should always be handled privately or ignored entirely.
With such little support, countless people remain unsure of how to handle their own mental health difficulties and are even more apprehensive about helping their friends.
That being said, this article isn’t meant to point fingers; it’s meant to invite us to think critically about the ways we contribute to this stigma, and to openly discuss how we can combat this issue. Arguably, one of the easiest ways to begin to accomplish this goal is to adapt our language.
This shift can happen in one of two ways — the first is to employ people-first language, which emphasizes speaking about the person first and their illness second. Some examples include simple changes like saying “people with mental illnesses” instead of “mentally ill people,” or saying “they have bipolar disorder” instead of “they’re bipolar.”
The second involves altering your language completely and focusing on the emotions that you’re experiencing. This change involves swapping phrases like “that drives me crazy” to “that irritates me,” and “Alabama’s weather is bipolar” to “Alabama’s weather changes constantly.”
These changes may be difficult to integrate, but it’s our responsibility to cultivate a more affirming atmosphere that encourages people to seek help before it’s too late. Many people are living with their mental illnesses in silence; normalizing their experiences may help them move forward.