“Crazy Hair Day” at school. “Crazy Daze Sale” at the mall. “Crazy fast cars” on the Avenue. “Crazy people” living at the homeless shelter. “That’s crazy!” If you pay attention, you’ll be amazed at how frequently you hear these comments. Perhaps you’ll even catch yourself saying it. So what?
According to my Google search (www.google.com) of the word “crazy,” it is used as an adjective: “mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way.” It is used as an adverb: “extremely enthusiastic.” And it is used as a noun: “a mentally deranged person.”
The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960’s failed to live up to its promise of moving individuals living with mental illnesses out of institutions and into community-based, supported residential environments. Instead, the community-based residences never materialized, and people were left with nowhere to go. They ended up in jails, prisons, hospitals, city parks and dumpsters. “Mentally deranged” people became more visible to the general public and referring to them as “crazy” was common.
So what? The answer is STIGMA. Continuing my Google search, “stigma” is a noun: “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” A mark of disgrace. Associated with a person. It’s easy to see how a person who can be stained by a mark of disgrace is not likely to openly speak about the source of that mark, and this is especially true of individuals who experience symptoms of mental illness. It’s a secret people learn to keep. Like any secret, it’s a dangerous (and deadly) one.
Stigma is blamed for the reluctance of individuals who experience symptoms of mental illness to tell anyone what they are going through. A 13-year old begins hearing voices from the lamp—who will they tell? A 20-year old feels so worthless that ending their life becomes a real solution—who will they tell? A 75-year old man has lost his partner and his friends, and his children don’t visit; he sees no point in living—who will he tell?
Words matter. Those who serve individuals who live with biological brain disorders, commonly referred to as mental illnesses, have a duty to advocate for the just and respectful treatment for those they serve. Consider yourself challenged to pay attention to what you say and what you hear, and challenge others to do the same. Try using one of the many, many other words that describe what you want to say. You’ll likely find it a wild and outrageous and unique and silly and irrational and outlandish and ridiculous and peculiar experience!
Karen J. Aspenson, MSW, CAPSW, is a former clinician with the Wellness Screen program. She serves students in the Hortonville Area School District through the E3 program. E3 is a comprehensive school-based mental health services collaborative that combines mental health education, support, screening and treatment.