Substituting for ‘crazy’

As I’m sure I’ve argued before, words really do matter in some contexts. They both reflect and define our realities, and can indicate to each other what we feel and think about things, as well as what’s acceptable in groups.

People might now switch off because “omg the PC police” but, try replacing “political correctness gone mad” with “people would like respect” and see how things look…

Yeah, no, it really isn’t

Today’s subject is the increased use of terms that usually reference mental ill-health being substituted for descriptors of the unusual and notable like baffling, unconscionable, inexplicable, astonishing, amazing, awesome, fantastic, brilliant, shocking, clever, super, awful, despicable, outrageous, indefensible, unfair – and many more besides; I am (sadly) not a thesaurus.

That’s a big range of stuff to throw words like crazy, insane, mad, batshit or mental at. I think it’s more common in the US (especially insane) but seems fairly ubiquitous now, especially in clickbait headlines (a root of many ills) and generally as intensifiers.

I don’t know why this has happened; obviously we’ve de-fanged quite a lot of terms that used to refer to people with learning disabilities and mental illnesses, although there are arguments against using them, and some terms absolutely should be abandoned (if you care to respect people at all). It’s very easy to repeat what we’re used to hearing, and children especially will do so.

My most shameful occasion that I recall was at least 20 years ago when my dad found it entertaining for us to call each other “mental!” back and forth. But one day I said “you should be in a mental hospital then… like your brother!” – my uncle was severely bipolar and repeatedly admitted, with little to no acknowledgement or help from his family, for decades. It upsets me now to think of it. Dad replied “That’s hurtful, don’t say that” and while I could quite clearly see that it was, the line crossed seemed very thin and, well, if spelling it out was what did it, maybe it was never OK in the first place?

[Time of writing: both of them passed away quite recently so, no, they won’t be upset to see this. I share it to point out we all make mistakes when we don’t know better.]

The too-long-didn’t-read of this post:

The point is, equating or linking violence and hate with mental illness contributes to stigma. This then informs, reinforces and promotes discriminatory attitudes towards mental illness and the people who live with them in general, as well as making accessing help for them more difficult; through reduced funding, poor understanding within families and other support networks, and all the harm that causes.

Words we use are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to discrimination, but it’s one we can choose to fix and not contribute with.

It’s one of those intent =/= impact situations. Just because we might not think the word actually fully literally applies to the person, it normalises thinking of these two things together (mentally ill person = violent/dangerous person). That’s not helpful to anyone; it’s stigmatising.

“They’re mentally ill”

What I want to think about is an argument I have repeatedly so it’ll be good to explore in one place. Cecil the Lion‘s death at the hands of a hunter/dentist has made the news and with lots of people talking about it, who are prone to insulting fellow humans (often justifiably), it throws up a lot of this automatic-accusation-of-illness.

It makes me really uncomfortable (disclosure: I suffer from mild-moderate depression, although many if not most of my friends deal with similar and worse). Here’s one such example, edit: I’m not sure if this is the image I originally shared, as the link expired (it always helps when celebrities do this stuff – and Gervais can get in the bin as he’s often being terrible but case in point, though I also do not support e.g. badger culls):

Tweet by @rickygervais: at 6:57PM, 28 Jul 2015: “It’s not for food. It’s not the shooting, or tin cans would do. It must just be the thrill of killing. Mental” [link to Telegraph article about Cecil]

Disclaimer: I do not support hunting that is not for food when other sources are available, especially when the species are protected or endangered, and I am not defending trophy hunters at any point here.

So. Please, let’s not “excuse” trophy hunters as mentally ill because a) they’re probably not b) that’s a massive slap in the face to the 1/4 people who actually suffer with mental illnesses – the vast majority of whom would not hurt others, and in fact are far more likely to suffer violence or harm themselves.

Most rooms you enter will have people dealing with mental illness in them. They are your friends, family and colleagues, and you will encounter them daily.

Please understand that by describing things with these words, you are making them (at least) uncomfortable. You might not care, but I hope you can a bit more, and be more considerate of all the people around you – and expand your vocabulary a bit.

This kind of automatic association between violence and mental ill-health adds to the already massive stigma we have to deal with, as well as actually hindering progress in stopping trophy hunting. If you knee-jerk write these people off as ‘mental‘ then you end the conversation, and you don’t find out what actually motivates them, or what steps could be taken to better educate people and protect animals from them.

So, let’s stop acting like mental health is the issue and instead address root causes, as well as avoid further demonising people with mental illnesses who already find it hard enough to get treatment and avoid similar prejudices every day – from friends and family, in the workplace, in dating – it throws up a surprising number of roadblocks.

Being an asshole is not a symptom of mental illness. Everyone is capable of it, so let’s concentrate on that – the problems of rage, lack of empathy, entitlement, posturing – that peers and society more widely can teach people (particularly white dudes) are acceptable qualities. Don’t blame it on differences in brain chemistry when that’s highly unlikely to be a cause at all (though it might be concurrent sometimes).

The need for explanation

People kill things without being mentally ill. Vegans can and will stand tall here – but if you’ve ever eaten meat/fish, something died for that. You might not kill it personally, but you benefit and take pleasure from it. People kill bugs, people make value judgements about what lives are worthy or not all the time – without being sick somehow.

You need to deal with this fact, because promoting the idea that mental illness is required for a kind of violence you wouldn’t personally participate in harms people, and I hope you care about that too. Please don’t do it.

What is the reason people say ‘oh they’re mental‘? I feel like it’s a need to distance ourselves. You don’t want to identify with that man, another human being like yourself, so you try to other him by saying his brain must be broken. But it’s not, necessarily. And that worries you, because it means you could be closer or more prone to that kind of behaviour than you like to think.

But you wouldn’t do it, because you know why it’s wrong, and it would repulse you. Mental illness does not generally destroy people’s understanding of right/wrong, the ability to reason morally, or erase personal values. Indeed it often intensifies them. It is not the gatekeeper between killers and “normal people like you and me” – see also the ‘monster myth‘ – the way people have a tendency to label e.g. rapists as ‘monsters‘ when really they’re just normal guys who have absorbed messages pervasive in our culture and act (what seems to them) accordingly.

“But they’re psychos”

If you enjoy killing a sentient animal, irrespective of its species, for actual pleasure, to revel in extinquishing a conscious life, then you have a personality disorder akin to psychopathy” – anon

You might label them psychopath and, sure, it requires a certain lack of empathy to kill things for fun, but they still are quite capable of not being a psychopath. That’s not the definition of psychopathy. There are also various assumptions in the statement. That they enjoy the killing itself, rather than the accomplishment of having killed, and having a trophy (they call it trophy hunting for a reason), that one definitely thinks of an animal as ‘a conscious life’ rather than, say, ‘a lion’ and separate – people quite often reduce other humans to unthinking objects too, it’s (sadly) not too difficult.

Objectification is pretty par for the course in most of our societies. It’s a problem, and it involves lack of empathy, but it’s still not sufficient to diagnose psychopathy. Otherwise a huge per cent of the population is. Although, if you haven’t read The Psychopath Test, than you’ll be unaware of a lot of the weirdness involved here.

Plenty of people with completely ‘normal’ brains can grow up with a lack of moral education and learn a set of values that leads to them feeling it’s their right to do these things – not just that it’s ok, but that they’re entitled to it, and that often pushes people to do things they don’t even need to. That is not mental illness. Some of them might have an illness, or be psychopaths, but the majority probably do not, and by deciding mental illness is the cause suggests anyone with any mental illness is more likely to harm people (and animals) and that’s simply not true.

It is a psychiatrist’s job to diagnose someone with any kind of mental disorder, not random people’s, and the tendency for the latter is damaging too. People thinking they know what illnesses manifest like when they really don’t is a big problem.

“The American Psychiatric Association proscribes its members from commenting on the mental health of public figures under a nonbinding rule known as “the Goldwater Rule, which originated after a 1964 magazine article that surveyed more than a thousand psychiatrists about Barry Goldwater’s emotional suitability for holding the office of president. (Goldwater later sued for libel and won a monetary settlement.)

The fact that many mental health professionals routinely violate the Goldwater Rule does not invalidate it. Those of us in the health professions who are solicited for comments about public events would be wise to heed its rationale, regardless of our specialty”

– John Henning Schumann, MD

Apparently, many CEOs are “psychopaths”. People aren’t generally storming buildings because of that – because illnesses manifest in a range of different ways. People with mental health problems can even be better at caring about others than most – empathy and anxiety seem to be quite closely linked.

This is an especially huge problem in America where people keep waving off white male shooters as sick instead of addressing the underlying problems of gun control, racism, male entitlement and other things – so many factors can combine to lead to people being violent, mental illness is neither a prerequisite nor a major cause.

You can call them and their acts lots of things: deplorable, entitled wankers; wastes of space; foul, unthinking, unfeeling; inexcusable trophy-hunting poor excuses for human beings – instead of nutters/mentals/batshit etc.

It seems most people don’t fully equate humans and other animals morally (nor do our laws) – and most people have a sliding scale, where the big, cute, fluffy things get more attention than other species. Many would look at those who do equate all life and say they are mentally ill!! (I’m not doing that, but if you found someone picking up an ant and having a chat to it, you might snap-judge them odd at least. Or not, I talk to just about anything that moves – except people of course).

Cultural issues

America is a very different culture from ours in the UK. There’s the right to have your guns, and even walk around with them on show in some places. There are arcade games of hunting; realistic, nothing to them except ‘shoot the game’ – I saw a man playing one in Washington with his daughter (no older than 8) in a bar. It made me extremely uncomfortable, and I generally love games. But there seemed no point to this other than to reinforce the connection of wild deer with trophies. It’s normalised in a lot of communities.

There’s the toxic masculinity; men believing that hunting is manly and if you’re not manly you’re not worth a damn. What better way to gain respect..?

None of that requires psychopathy to be influenced to the point of action.

Killing humans is known as murder, drummed into us from an early age. It takes an extra level of empathy to equate killing animals as the same and the step is taken by many, with the distance varying depending on our upbringing and worldviews. I vividly remember being taught by my mum, while kids my age were chopping up lizards for a laugh, that we should do to others (including other animals) as we would have them do to ourselves. But they weren’t taught that and were instead ignored and given no sense of respect for their environment or fellow creatures. You can diagnose them all psychopaths if you like, but I’d warn against it.

I imagined mountain-climbers to compare. Fortunately the mountain is non-sentient, but the severe personal harm endured and risked, the effort, then the ‘trophy’ atop the summit… I’d reach for the ‘mad‘ label there, but I can also summon up my empathy to understand why people might enjoy it, even if I feel I wouldn’t. There’s no cruelty involved, which is where the analogy fails of course, but there are many similar activities some people value and take great risk and effort to accomplish that others don’t.

With hunting, obviously the suffering of the animals and damage to the species more widely is our personal reason for wanting people to stop. We dislike this activity, find these actions (for example) deplorable, disgusting, revolting, inhuman. Understandable. But that’s not sufficient or even a consideration for some. Understanding why is more likely to help us address it than blaming illness. (No doubt many hunters will explain how they help ecosystems and that would be true in some cases).

They might explain why they’ve acted in a way that is, to them, rational, or maybe it’s someone else’s fault (a more psychopathic view). Some of them will indeed be psychopaths or otherwise ill, many are not. So we need to not focus on that, but on the kinds of messages, values and fears people absorb that allow them to justify such actions.

Let’s do that.


12 thoughts on “Substituting for ‘crazy’

  1. Anonymous

    This is a brilliant article highlighting something very important to a huge number of people that often goes unnoticed in the backdrop of everyday society. As someone who works as a psychologist in mental health, and has experienced depression as a young person, I commend and value the efforts made by people highlighting this as a problem.

    Language is a great changer of minds. You’ve used yours with such skill that maybe some minds will change some of their language as a result. Long may a positive cycle of change continue.

    I’m quite interested in social constructionism and the idea that a lot of mental health problems get located “in” an individual by society and other systems around them, rather than seen as something more complex and dynamic at least partially located in those very systems. I’m interested in the part that language plays, and the ways in which mental health stigma creates “mental illness”. Where clinically appropriate, I would love to adapt and use some of your analogies with my clients as illustrative examples when I’m doing psychoeducation and working within e.g. a family/carer system. Would you be okay with this?

    Many thanks for sharing a thought-provoking, interesting article and valuable point of view on this.

    1. Absolutely ok! I’d be surprised if it’s all original and not something I’d read/heard in passing before anyway. Glad my views aren’t way off from a professional perspective 🙂

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