“It was crazy!” (But was it, really?)

3 Oct

Someone pointed out to me last year that when I invite a group to “get crazy and mix it up” when I ask them to create their own small groups for a discussion or activity, I’m participating in a mainstream cultural misusage of terms describing mental disability, disease and unwellness, in the very same culture that typically fails to address mental health transparently, respectfully and helpfully.

I agree. And if reinforcing stigma isn’t reason enough to rethink our collective, casual misuse of mental health terms, let me just say that the ways we use these misappropriated terms are usually inaccurate, as in:

  • “Get crazy and mix it up in your small groups!” It’s actually sensible, community-building and a reasonable professional requestnot crazy–to talk to more people than you typically get to. More directly, I could say: “Take advantage of the fact that the whole staff is together, and mix up your usual coffee break, meeting, office-mate conversation partners!”
  • “That meeting was totally insane!” Most likely, it wasn’t. It was just not what I was expecting. I could say this more clearly: “Wow, people were energized during that meeting! And we just went with it.”
  • [Your turn. First, if you haven’t already, just notice when mental health terms come up, not in reference to actual mental health status. For me, it was startlingly how commonplace this is, from my friends and family, in professional conversations, in entertainment media, in the news… Then, notice if those terms were code for something else that could have been said more clearly, directly…and without dismissing actual mental unwellness.]

Now, you may be thinking, Oh, come on, Alison. We can’t even say “crazy” anymore?

Of course you can. The question is just whether that’s what you intend and choose to do, when you weigh how it’s both “harmless”/”meaningless” when we say “crazy” casually (just like I’ve heard kids say that “retarded” and “gay” don’t mean anything when you call a thing–not a person–“retarded” or “gay”), and dismissive of mental health issues. Because it is both, even if you just meant the former.

And today, in yet more coverage about our “unstable,” “mentally unwell,” “narcissistic” and [insert other mental illness terms you’ve heard or used yourself to describe the current US] President, I heard great advice from journalist Shankar Vedantam:

“Here’s a very simple test on whether you should be using the lens of mental illness to think about someone: are you using it to basically help them, or are you using it to help yourself? It’s a very simple test.”

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