Around the bend, attention seeker, bananas, basket case, batty, bonkers. Brain damaged, brain dead, brainsick, certifiable. Cracked, crackers, cray- cray, crazy. Crazy-pants, cuckoo, daft, defective. Demented, deranged, derpy, ding-a-ling. Dribbling, drugged-up, feeble-minded, freak. Frenzied, fruitcake. Gaga, gonzo. Goober, halfwit, hand fed, head case. Idiot, imbecile, loco, loopy. Lunatic, maniac, mental case, moron. Nut job, nutso, nutter. Off their meds, off their rocker, out of their mind, over the edge. Paranoid, postal, psycho, reject. Schizo. Schizoid. Schizophrenic. Sick-o, simpleton, sociopath, spaz. Straightjacket, twisted, unbalanced, unhinged. Wacko, whack-job, window licker. Wrong.
You just read sixty-eight derogatory terms used in everyday speech to describe a person living with a mental illness. Sixty-eight. And that barely scratches the surface. I trimmed the list down from over two-hundred. Words so commonplace that we don’t give them a second thought. Every time I hear them spoken, or read them in print, I cringe – and you should, too.
These words are ingrained in our culture and used at the expense of people who are struggling to deal with conditions largely misunderstood. Consider the parents, therapists, teachers, and friends fed up with listening to their children, clients, students, and mates seemingly testing reality with erratic behaviors. Fed. Up. And why not? That’s reason enough to blow off some steam, right? They should be allowed a little rudeness every now and then, wouldn’t you agree? After all, they’re at their wits end. They deserve a break. It’s exhausting dealing with a mentally ill person.
Really? Seriously? Think about that.
How are they justified in responding with dismissal and condescension? Are they excused for using these terms because of their standing as a parent, a professional, an educator, or a friend? In other circles, when pejorative terms are used, our culture has a word for that, a legal term, one that can force a person to lose their job, even spend time incarcerated. We call it bullying. It’s not limited to the playground.
Did it strike you as odd that the word “schizophrenia” was included in that list? When I was doing my research, I found no other clinical diagnosis included among the most common slurs. Only one of the myriad of possible existing conditions is singled out and indicated as “defining” mental illness. Is it any wonder then, that our educational system may hold and/or promote the singularly misguided belief that any individual living with a mental illness is a potential “schizophrenic”? Through fear and misjudgment it is errantly assumed that that person is prone to violence. Convenient when the press needs a scapegoat.
Consider how it feels to grow up in a society where you are taught, along with your peers, that you are the enemy. One could posit that self-stigma is entrained into the mentally ill student by the very culture that teaches them to expect to be thrown under the bus because of it.
I was asked recently why, as an advocate, I would use the term “mentally ill”. My answer is simple: this is the terminology of the day, and as awareness evolves, so will the term. Advocates speak in the language of their people; they don’t succumb to name-calling and ridicule. Having a mental illness does not make you an immediate target for intolerance, regardless of what anyone might think. Theirs is contempt prior to investigation. So introduce yourself.
I have schizophrenia – a chronic and debilitating disorder of the brain. I have done my research. I continue to learn. Science has proof that schizophrenia is the result of a chromosomal anomaly. It is not the result of poor parenting, or diets too rich in copper, or errant social programming, or demonic possession. Only one percent of the world’s population share this rare mutation.
I have surrendered to the facts of my diagnosis: that I will not always be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. That my thinking will be regularly clouded or confused. That my emotional responses will often be amplified or inappropriate or both or missing. Social situations will confound me. I will be alone and misunderstood because I can’t understand why I’m alone and misunderstood. It is not a romantic life. But it’s mine.
Be authentic. Show the world your real face. Be willing to speak from your heart so that others can better understand your disorder or condition, thereby distinguishing the myth from the person in front of them. You will likely see what I see: that with faith in one another we are not alone, and that together we can end the stigma and discrimination that we experience every day. We can live without shame or ridicule, from without or within. We have a right to be treated as human beings, not monsters or rejects. We have the right to proper health care, to friendship, and respect.
The next time someone hurts you with words, remember this: “normal” is just a setting on the dryer.
Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle artist, writer, and musician living with schizophrenia. He received his diagnosis in 2010 and has been managing his illness with a passion ever since. He is currently writing a memoir chronicling his experiences with schizophrenia and trauma in the hope that people living with a mental illness – as well as those who love and care for them – will find something in his story that compels them to share their own. Publicly open in his advocacy for awareness and change, Henry focuses on education and communication as the most effective tools in any superhero’s utility belt. Honesty and courage work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.