K.J. Aiello is a writer living in Toronto.
I’m mentally ill. I have bipolar disorder, agoraphobia and social-anxiety disorder. I’m also a writer. Words are my bread and butter. But words can be isolating.
Remember when Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently used the term “nutcase?” Or when U.S. President Donald Trump called former FBI director James Comey a “nut job?” How about when he called for the reopening of institutions to deal with gun-toting, violent people? Yeah, I remember that, too. That one cut deep.
Words such as those are abhorrent, on that many of us can agree. But what about “crazy” or “insane”? Or Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s cringe-worthy claim that Elections Canada’s statement about climate change was “lunacy”? Then she blindly engineered that runaway train by stating, “Elections Canada is not a lunatic organization.”
Mindful language has reached many corners of our lexicon in earnest attempts to internalize inclusion. But when it comes to mental illness, these intentions seem to have been lost. Let’s be honest, how many times have we said “what an insane day!” or “that’s crazy!” We don’t even blink an eye.
But here’s the problem: Ableist language is insidious. It slips in mostly unseen, stripping power from the mentally ill. It’s an erasure of experience, struggle, autonomy and voice. Ableist language has been part of our communication for so long, infiltrating all social, political and entertainment platforms (Crazy in Love, anyone? How about Crazy Rich Asians?).
Language can have profound effects on the brain. Even a single harmful word such as “crazy” can stimulate a tiny structure in the brain called the amygdala, eliciting a fear response. While using “crazy” won’t make anyone run for their lives, it encourages a negative self-image and fear of exposure. Angrier and intentionally aggressive words such as nutcase further reduce executive control over those emotions.
These neurophysiological effects can switch genes on or off, which can then be transferred through epigenetics, sliding from generation to generation, furthering the cycle of mental illness, discrimination, social isolation and poverty.
Ableist language specific to mental illness reinforces the perception that the mentally ill are abnormal or broken. We’re not, I assure you. But this kind of language places us behind a veil of otherness, only to be gazed at when we don’t fit into normative social constructs or attempt to seek health care. Even with the current collective consensus toward stigma erasure, ableist words still pepper conversations, moving seamlessly and undetected through our daily discourse. But don’t let that fool you. These words are picked up by us mentally ill.
I used to laugh nervously when folks would describe someone as “psycho,” not mentioning the irony that the root of the word actually means spirit or the mind. Once upon a time, similar words were used to describe abnormal behaviours in an early attempt to codify mental disorders. But now they’re used as whips to punish those who suffer with mental illness. They’re used in negative contexts with a lack of consideration toward what makes us uncomfortable. They’re thrown as insults as though being mentally ill is, in fact, insulting. Your day wasn’t crazy, I assure you. Wild, maybe. A bit bananas. Maybe really tough. But not crazy. Not mental. Not just so insane.
We adopt sympathy and attempt to understand the mentally ill. We have a mostly open dialogue about mental health. We all know one in five Canadians suffers with mental illness and we attempt as best we can to accommodate. But we still draw the line at language, ignorant of how harmful these words truly are. If we really want to be inclusive, we need to call out the use of these hurtful words. We need to demand better of ourselves, our friends and families, colleagues and folks representing us in legislatures. We need to be allies of the mentally ill. We can’t sit back while political leaders call the mentally ill “nutcases” or describe poor decisions as “lunacy.” I’ve been in a “lunatic asylum,” Ms. May, and you’re right, Elections Canada sure ain’t it. So why did you say this in the first place?
If we want to be truly inclusive, we need to hold ourselves accountable for our own language. We need to consider the effects our words have on those who truly struggle, day in and day out, with mental illness. When we speak, we need to be mindful that mental illness can, and does, take lives. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can harm us all.
And that’s on everyone.