Is the Word 'Crazy' Stigmatizing the Mentally Ill?

Patient Expert
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In my role as a mental health advocate, I seldom have the opportunity to comment on current events. Without a specific mental health tie-in, it would just muddy the waters. No one reads what I’m writing to find out what kind of music I like, for example -- unless I mention that listening to music can help ease anxiety (which it can).

I was prepared to let this election season pass by without comment when, all of a sudden, throngs of people -- including the media -- started calling Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, “crazy.” I knew there would be some backlash to this.

Many people in the mental health community consider any use of the word “crazy” to be offensive. The same community often criticizes me for saying I’m bipolar.

Is the word crazy inherently offensive?

Many people will argue that the word “crazy” is a passive trigger that is demeaning, whether or not we mean it to be. In other words, using the word is inherently offensive, no matter the intention.

I looked up “crazy” in the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Here’s an abbreviated definition:

  • Mad, insane.
  • Impractical.
  • Erratic.
  • Being out of the ordinary: unusual (a taste for crazy hats).
  • Distracted with desire or excitement (a thrill-crazy mob).
  • Absurdly fond: infatuated (he's crazy about the girl).
  • Passionately preoccupied: obsessed (crazy about boats).

Much of the above should not be immediately offensive to the mental health community. And in the case of Mr. Trump, for example, his methods and pronouncements are -- by his own admission -- out of the ordinary.

Many people feel that his views are extreme, his behavior erratic, and his candidacy [was] impractical. The use of the word “crazy” to describe his behavior could easily fall into the realm of opinion. You don’t need to agree with these statements in order for “crazy” to be a correct word with which someone expresses a point of view.

However, just because a person uses a correct word doesn’t mean that word isn’t offensive. No reasonable person believes that the word “crazy” is a clinical mental health diagnosis. When I hear the word used about someone, I don’t immediately assume that person has mental illness. In general, I see it as a slang word indicating that something extremely unusual is being referenced.

In a world filled with so much misinformation and stereotypes surrounding mental illness, I just have a hard time getting upset at slang. According to Wikipedia, “Slang consists of a lexicon of non-standard words and phrases in a given language. Use of these words and phrases is typically associated with the subversion of a standard variety (such as Standard English).”

In other words, if I stay out all night, partake in activities that I normally wouldn’t, and wrap up by watching the sun rise from the roof of my house with a flock of geese by my side, I would tell everyone the next day that I had a “crazy” night.

And most people would agree. Furthermore, using “crazy” as a slang term wouldn't cause them to think less of anyone who has a mental health diagnosis.

For those reasons, and more, I don’t believe the general use of the slang term “crazy” is inherently offensive.

Oversensitivity doesn’t lead to decreased stigma

As someone who has bipolar disorder, I have experienced first-hand the stigma and discrimination aimed at people living with mental illness. I understand the tendency to see negativity where none exists. That is typical behavior for anyone who has experienced trauma. I’m not suggesting that certain words, phrases, or actions can’t be triggers for a person: literally anything can be a trigger to someone. I am suggesting that looking for them and/or creating them is counterproductive.

It’s imperative to know the difference between being triggered because of our own personal experiences and actual discrimination. Being oversensitive and demanding that society cater to that sensitivity is unlikely to foster a better understanding of life with mental illness.

Consider soldiers returning from war who flinch, or even throw themselves on the ground, when a loud noise surprises them. Now imagine if all soldiers banded together to tell society that loud noises were triggers for them and that the solution was that all loud noises -- both accidental (tires screeching) and intentional (fireworks) -- were part of a larger insensitivity aimed at them out of either malice or ignorance. Soldiers everywhere would begin to believe that all loud noises were further proof of society’s desire to alienate them and drive a deeper wedge between “them” and “us.”

While it’s true that many soldiers don’t like loud noises, they don’t insist that society quiet down in order to reduce veterans' discomfort.

Because that would be crazy.