Recently, a mutual friend labeled me as “crazy” for openly voicing my opinions and frustrations. I told him I didn’t appreciate being made to feel "crazy," especially when he knew absolutely nothing about me, and that he shouldn’t joke about mental health again. I admit, growing up, I threw around the word “crazy” at anything and anyone that I didn’t care to understand or explain. Now, I’ve learned not to, due to its negative, stigmatizing connotations.
There’s no doubt about it — society overuses the word “crazy” to an irrational extent. But it’s important to discuss the implications of mindlessly using “crazy” when describing others (of course, this applies to similar words like “psycho” or “insane”). Unfortunately, these terms not only perpetuate mental health stigma, but also undermine the experiences of those who do struggle with mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and/or psychosis.
How exactly do these words perpetuate negative stereotypes regarding mental illness?
I interviewed Alicia Meyer, a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Penn with a certificate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She is also the graduate associate for the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Department. Meyer expressed that “it’s very normal for anyone to call anyone else 'crazy' — that’s just kind of the world we live in.”
She further explained that there are usually two different ways of using this term: “If somebody is acting out, or acting particularly assertive, or doing something they're not supposed to do, according to their social class or social position, then they’re often called 'crazy.' [We think] ‘they’re out of their mind, how could they think to do this thing, or that’s not what women are supposed to do.’ Then there's also people who are struggling with different degrees of mental health, and the word 'crazy' hits on both of those things and blurs the line between them, making it worse for both parties.”
In short, the word “crazy” often offends people struggling with mental illness, as well as those without, thereby trivializing very real conditions, undermining their individual experiences, and contributing to harmful stereotypes. “In my opinion, that is how it is stigmatized. It’s a stigma that works by discrediting everybody the word is thrown at,” Meyer said.
In an article written by Jessica A. Gold, M.D., M.S., she spoke with mental health experts and people with mental illnesses to uncover the implications of the word “crazy.” She outlined specific scenarios where “crazy” is stigmatizing, derogatory, and offensive, so that people understand when it is appropriate and when it is not. For instance, we should never use “crazy” to describe someone with a mental health condition, nor should we describe any of their behaviors as such — whether or not they are symptoms of an illness.
Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says, “The problem with the word is it implies something other than a person living with a very complicated, profound health condition. It implies a characterological issue or personality flaw rather than a brain illness.”
Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you dislike or disagree with other people’s actions. That gives you no right to call them or their behavior “crazy.” Nobody appreciates being made to feel like they are overreacting or unstable. In fact, calling somebody else "crazy" is not only stigmatizing and demeaning, but it also discourages people from seeking necessary support and treatment. People don’t want to be judged, subjected to social stigma, or perceived in a different light, so labels like “crazy” may isolate them and prevent them from reaching out for help.
“Crazy” should also never be used as a catchall term to describe people and/or behavior that is even remotely negative, uncommon, or different. Someone who constantly works is busy, someone who always laughs at jokes is silly, someone who refuses other ideas is unreasonable, and someone who obsesses over someone or something is passionate. These people should not all be lumped under the umbrella term “crazy.”
Jessica Gimeno, a prominent mental health activist diagnosed with bipolar II, runs her own blog, and notes that “Someone who is racist — they are racist, not 'crazy.' Or sometimes people use the word 'crazy' to label people they have issues with, from a political figure they oppose to an ex.” That is, we should aim for more descriptive, specific words to describe what we are referring to, rather than lazily, mindlessly throwing around this word. In essence, say what you actually mean, instead of relying on a condescending catchall term.
But this doesn’t mean we must eliminate “crazy” from our vernacular altogether, as there are some positive implications that are neither demeaning nor offensive. You could be singing the lyrics to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” to your significant other, because you are simply in love. A gymnast can perform “crazy” or mind-blowing handstands and backflips, because they are just that impressive and skilled. When the word is used as a positive within specific contexts, there is no ambiguity in its implications, because “crazy” is referring to something that’s evidently good. However, when in doubt about whether or not “crazy” comes off as offensive, stay on the safe side and steer clear from this sensitive word altogether.
If we are to combat mental health stigma, completely eliminating negative usage of the word “crazy” is a necessary step — though this may prove difficult, considering how ingrained this term is in our vernacular. Remember that nobody should be made to feel incompetent, unstable, or simply worse about themselves, just because you dislike or disagree with their behavior. As Meyer aptly put it, “Crazy is so common, that it’s almost meaningless, and yet it still has the power to be very offensive. That’s why I think it really depends on context, for when it’s being used and when it’s not…Think about how you’re using it, and when you’re using it.”
BRIDGET YU is a rising College junior from Los Angeles, CA studying Psychology. She plans to attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.