The Use Of Mental Health Slurs in Colloquial Language

As someone with mental health issues: anxiety, autism and probably a degree of depression, I’m very used to a level of discrimination and stigma around things that are a feature of my life. Autistic people are stereotyped as having ‘no empathy’, or as being weird, obsessive or hyper-intelligent. Anxious people are told to stop getting so worried,  as if it were that easy,  and to calm down. People with depression are told they’re not really depressed, and that they’re not depressed unless they’re sad all of the time. Even more generally, people with mental health issues of all kinds are stereotyped as being dangerous, lonely, scary, violent and even murderous.

But the overt discrimination and the stereotypes aren’t reinforced merely by overt hatred. It’s reinforced by the constant, everyday use of mental health terms, mental illnesses and disabilities to refer to everyday situations,  and specifically, to refer to bad ones. People will joke about being bipolar, or ‘OCD’, or depressed, or autistic,  what they really mean is they are having mood swings, or like cleaning, or feel sad, or were direct or rude. They’ll call things ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ when they mean unusual, strange and weird. People seem to think doing these things are harmless, but they’re not.

In the first instance, when people take a mental health issue and use it to refer to an everyday, inane feeling, they trivialise its importance and make it harder for someone to seek treatment. Constantly associating the word ‘depression’ with ‘feeling a bit sad’ means that people who have depression will try and convince themselves they donít have it. Constantly associating autism with a lack of empathy, or with being nasty, leads logically to media outlets automatically describing bigoted and hateful mass murderers as ‘autistic’ in an attempt to mark the killers out as not like ‘ordinary’ people. Using such language over and over again, making these associations, just reinforces harmful stereotypes that make it hard for mental illnesses to be taken seriously. It also makes society afraid of people like me.

In the second instance, people constantly using ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ to describe things they think are unusual, strange, weird or bizarre just means that society continues to associate ‘mental illness’ with ‘weird’. It means that being mentally ill comes to be associated in people’s minds with being strange or weird, making it harder for mentally ill people to seek treatment and support from the people around them. It makes it harder for people to accept that they are mentally ill, because they don’t want to be associated with such stereotypes. It reminds mentally ill people that those who use such terms think our existence is a joke. That’s not a pleasant thing to be reminded of.

So please. We need to stop using ‘crazy’ when we mean strange or unusual. We need to stop using ‘insane’ when we mean excited or emotional. People must stop using mine and othersí illnesses and disabilities as toss-away phrases to describe quirks of their personality. They may think it has no consequence, but it does, and it impacts on us. The words we use have power; they always have and they always will. So please use them responsibly, and donít reinforce ableism.


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October 2021
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