“Mental Illness” As a Flawed Term

Most people think they know what the term “mental illness” is and what it evokes—but in fact it’s an oft-misunderstood and misused term unacceptable to many, depending on how it’s used. Health Partners:

Mental illness is a broad term. It doesn’t reflect what a person is actually dealing with. For example, if you say that someone has “cardiac issues,” that doesn’t really provide much information about what they’re going through. There are many different types of heart problems, and not all patients with cardiac problems have had a heart attack.

Similarly, not everyone with a mental health issue has been suicidal or depressed. There are many different mental health issues. And two people with the same clinical diagnosis can present very differently, too. So, to be respectful of people’s individual experiences, it’s important to use language that also acknowledges that mental illnesses are not all the same.

Many replacement words also may not work, depending on context. In addition to “nuts” and “crazy” (or “going crazy”) and “insane” several other slangy synonyms, among many others too numerous to mention, are “losing one’s mind,” “nervous breakdown,” and “going mad.” Although such terms are often used loosely, usually not intending harm, it’s important to recognize how and when we use them, as these words can feel stigmatizing and/or offensive.

Below are some pertinent quotes from well-known folks that involve “psycholanguage” (meaning “words about the psyche”):

Jane Wagner (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and partner of Lily Tomlin): “See, the human mind is kind of like…a piñata. When it breaks open, there’s a lot of surprises inside. Once you get the piñata perspective, you see that losing your mind can be a peak experience.”

Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.”

Rodney Dangerfield: “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.”

Margot Kidder: “When I was crazy, I didn’t think of anything but being crazy.”

Albert Einstein: “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”

Mark Twain: “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

Sam Harris: “It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.”

Robert Anton Wilson: “Of course I’m crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

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