Language is powerful, right? This is one of the few things humans seem to universally agree upon. It’s why politicians hire great speechwriters, why a book can move you to tears, and why verbal arguments can swiftly escalate into physical fights. Language is not only how we influence, it’s how we make sense of and interact with the world around us. It’s our labelling mechanism: making known to ourselves and others what is safe and unsafe, our likes and dislikes... The desire to communicate is a natural instinct , and something we learn to do as soon as we’ve mastered sitting and holding our own heads up as babies. However, these labels come with a ton of connotations, and not all of them are helpful or accurate.
There’s a second general acceptance among most people in relation to language: when it comes to race, sexuality, religion, and gender, there are certain terms that carry too much historical weight, too many negative connotations to be used in everyday conversations… that is, unless you’re willing to risk causing serious offence. Some people argue that these new, 21st Century rules are a prime example of “political correctness gone mad” and oh, the irony of that statement. My particular bone to pick today concerns the use of words such as “mad”, “crazy”, “manic” and “psycho”’ in everyday, English vocabularies.
I’m writing this with my hands in the air, knowing that I’ve done this a lot in the past. It was only when messaging a friend and typing the words “omg! That’s MAD” that I realised the implications of what I was saying. After this recognition, it dawned on me that I used variations of this kind of language all the time. My day was “manic”, the price of renting in London is “crazy”. I became so aware of my own language choices that I soon started to notice similar patterns in the speech of others: the language used in radio, for example, in t.v scripts, and everyday conversations taking place around me.
So, I did what any twenty-something-year-old with a question in the age of SuperOptic broadband would do...I Googled it. Did you know that when you Google the word “crazy”, the first dictionary definition Google provides is:
This apparent “link” between mental health issues and violence is a well-known stereotype, enabled and perpetrated by mainstream media. It has been widely documented that if you read a story in the newspaper about someone with mental health issues, it is likely to be about violence. This is an incredibly damaging (not to mention generalised) stereotype and reduces mental health issues, in all their complexity, to a singular, biased image... As for the second and third definitions of being “extremely angry” or “foolish” ... Well, none of those sound particularly pleasant (or relevant) to me.
Now, this might not seem like such a big deal but, as I’ve mentioned (just once or twice) in previous posts, there’s a phenomenal amount of stigma surrounding mental health issues, which makes it incredibly hard for people to open up and talk about their experiences. Stigma tends to snowball, meaning seemingly insignificant issues - such as our language choices - only adds to the already existing taboo. If you use a word like “crazy” to mean something bad or to label something as undesirable then, by default, the word and labelled object/person assumes that negative meaning.
There’s this brilliant guy called Gregory Philo who, along with his colleagues at the Glasgow Media Company, has done loads of work on representation in the media. In 2014, in partnership with Time to Change, they published a report on the representation of mental health in mainstream television. Happily, it reported that on-screen references to mental health had shifted towards more supportive and positive storylines, with fewer programmes reducing those with mental health issues to the stereotypical “violent” or “weak” character. Some portrayals even allowed for the exploration of mental health as a topic, following an insensitive use of language! The report then goes on to discuss the impact of these storylines and uses of language on the public’s perception of mental health issues. If you’re interested take a look at the full report (link at the end).
The work of charities such as SHIFT and Time to Change emphasises the importance of language and tone in media coverage when concerning mental health:
"We have made some real progress, work by SHIFT and others has led to The Sun agreeing not to use the word 'schizo' and now a resolution by the Press Complaints Commission about the term. This decision draws a line in the sand for other journalists - 'schizo' is no longer acceptable language to use about people with schizophrenia."
So, it seems we need to be aware of the language we use and make a concerted effort to use sensitive terms in the applicable ways, right?
To play devil’s advocate: when I called my sister out for using the word “crazy” in conversation once, she made the point that saying something is “crazy” isn’t always a negative reference. Language does change and evolve, and we use words to mean different things over time. “Crazy” and “mad” now don’t necessarily mean something negative, in the same way that “sick” is a relatively recent slang term for something cool and/or positive. There’s even a term for when a previously negative word takes on a positive meaning in linguistics: “semantic amelioration” (I knew that degree would come in handy). “Crazy”, “bonkers”, etc., are occasionally used as synonyms for “amazing”.
However, in my opinion, the English language is pretty broad. I mean, come on, it’s made up of hundreds of thousands of words. Admittedly, there are few words that are pretty good synonyms for those easy, default phrases we all rely on too heavily, but the use of language interchangeably like this can and will cause offence on occasions. I guess my point is that we all need to be aware of the language we use and the effect it can have on those around us. With so many alternatives, why use a word that could potentially upset someone or lead to the bigger picture of “crazy” = “BAD”? To help you out (because changing habits can be genuinely tricky) I’ve listed below lots of alternatives that you can use in their place. I’d love to hear yours too, so do comment below and let us know your view!
Wild, hectic, enjoyable, great, awesome, amusing, delightful, lovely, pleasant, exciting, thrilling, excellent, marvellous, wonderful, superb, first-class, admirable, fine, very good, good, terrific, tremendous, smashing, fantastic, fabulous, fab, super, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, glorious, grand, magic, out of this world, cool, brilliant, brill, champion, on fleek, swell.
Gregory Philo Report: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/sites/default/files/Making_a_drama_out_of_a_crisis.pdf
Hannah is 22 years old and the founder of Hello Me, it's You. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety whilst at University and the charity has helped her meet loads of other young people going through mental health issues too. She's realising that she's not so alone in her experiences and wants to help other people realise that as well. She love cocktails, Disney films and YA novels and is always happy to chat to new people.
Hello Me, it's You
Welcome to the brand new shiny Hello Me, it’s You blog! We are launching this blog with weekly content from different contributors, giving their opinions and experiences on all things Mental Health.