'Crazy' and 'Insane': the Conceptualisation of Mental Health in Society

Last year I came across an Instagram post about how the use of the word ‘r*tard’ is highly offensive. The definition of the word itself is meant to explain delays in progress or development, but is instead used as a slang insult to suggest inadequate intelligence or performance. It disregards and minimises the experience of those with disabilities by taking the word out of its medical context and instead attaching negative meaning to it to insult others. Dismissing the disabled experience is ableist – it discriminates in favour of able-bodied people, and understanding the ableism of the word ‘r*tard’ helps us to understand how, and why,  language like this is so harmful. 

This made me think about our use of other words which could be derogatory towards other groups in society.

The use of ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ and other mental health terms in our everyday vocabulary is slightly different to the explicit ableist use of the word ‘r*tard’.

Not every use of crazy or insane is necessarily offensive, as it is not always used as an insult by negatively implicating those with mental health issues. ‘I have a crazy amount of work to do today’, ‘the weather is a bit crazy right now’. Here it is used to denote excess in relation to objects or situations. Specific groups in society are not drawn into this comparison, which would suggest that using these words in this sense could still be acceptable.

But ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ can also be used in derogatory ways which negatively implicate those with mental health conditions. ‘My girlfriend is acting crazy’, ‘you’re insane to do that’, ‘stop being so psycho’. When we use these words in this way, we are stigmatizing mental health conditions by using them to offend. This links back to the use of ‘r*tard’. Crazy might seem harmless but giving negative value to these adjectives contributes to marginalizing people.

The fear of being called ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ can go so far as to prevent people with mental health conditions from reaching out for medical help, over the negative connotations of these words in the social imagination. ‘You’re so OCD for cleaning so much’. We’re using a serious mental health condition as an insult, and if this person was genuinely suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, it is stigmatized and shamed so they are less inclined to seek professional help. We might joke that someone is acting ‘crazy’ for talking to us about the anxious thoughts they are having, when in reality this person is struggling with the anxious thoughts that come with their generalized anxiety disorder. By turning these real mental health conditions into a joke or insult, we are removing the safe space where these people can discuss and seek help for their mental health conditions.

By considering our use of these words, we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. What is the origin and intended meaning behind our use of ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’? Are you using it in your everyday conversation to try and offend someone? If so, who are you marginalizing by doing so, and what word could you use instead?

I don’t think we need to completely remove these terms from our vocabulary, but we need consider if we are using them in a derogatory way. Language creates our reality, and alters our perception of people and mental health conditions through the ways that we attach negative or positive meaning to it. By starting a conversation around the origins of ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’, we can begin to dismantle the negative connotations which we have lent this language over time. We can develop more empathy, remove stigma, and work towards accepting and better treating mental health conditions.