Saturday, November 24, 2012

Autumn

"One's perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses. But what is the pin? So far as I could tell, the pin had something to do with one's own impotency. I cannot hold this--I cannot express this--I am overcome by it--I am mastered."

--from "Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car" by Virginia Woolf


"The beauty of this world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder."

--from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Crazy (How We Talk about Mental Illness)


Today, in class, we began reading Virginia Woolf's novel The Voyage Out. Something came up, and one of my students mentioned that she read somewhere that Woolf was "maybe, borderline crazy?"  I responded that Woolf wasn't crazy but bipolar.  A large number of students responded, "Well, that's crazy."

I don't share this story to make my students look bad.  In fact, in the past year alone, I've had multiple conversations with various people--many of whom I love and respect--about the use of the term "crazy" to describe mentally ill people.  I think my students' reaction was "normal," and I tried not to over-react for the very reason that I think most people would have responded in the exact same way.  At the same time, though, as I walked back to my office, I realized just how much it bothered me that "crazy" was such a common and comparatively socially acceptable response to mental illness.

As someone who knows and loves many people with bipolar and other mental health disorders, I care very much about the way that our society thinks about mental illness and the way that it talks about mental illness. Once I got back to my office, I tried to find an article from a semi-reputable site which could maybe express my thoughts on the issue better than I could.  I found a few things, but nothing that really said what I wanted to say.  What I told my students in class was to "Never call someone with a mental illness crazy."  Then we moved on to talk about how Woolf's condition interacted with her writing life.  It bothered me, though, that I couldn't adequately articulate my reason behind that imperative on-the-spot.

In the time since, I have done some reading and thinking.  What I'd like to do here is briefly mention why calling mental illness "craziness" is unhelpful, harmful, and offensive:

1.  The attitudes with which we say a word and the connotations which the word has accumulated are as equally important as the word itself.  Think about the kinds of things you call "crazy."  Think about the contexts in which you have heard the word.  Also think of words like "insane" and "lunatic."  At one time, a word like "madness" or "insanity" may have been the medically correct word, but connotations and attitudes have since linked them to a negative stigma.  Most of us grew up being taught to never use the word "retard" or "retarded."  Yes, at one time, the medical profession did use these words, but in the past few decades, the word has been used almost exclusively negatively.  I'd argue that the same is true for "crazy," "insane," "madness," and "lunatic."

2.  One health provider's site had a blog post I found helpful.  In this post, the author argued that the way we talk about mental illness--and the stigma that results from that language--might prevent people from seeking professional help.  She wrote, "Imagine feeling physically ill and fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life. You’d likely seek medical help, and early intervention might well return you to full health. Imagine feeling mentally ill, fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life, yet being afraid to ask for help, terrified of being labelled as 'nuts,' 'crazy' or 'insane.' Imagine feeling that ill health was more tolerable than seeking treatment."  I know that this scenario goes beyond hypothesis: I'd dare to guess that it happens almost every day.  Even if calling someone or something "crazy" were not innately wrong, the way that our language could negatively affect those around us should be reason enough to modify it.

3.  The last thing I wanted to share was a quotation I found on--of all places--Yahoo Answers.  Not the most credible source for making an argument, but someone said something I thought was worth sharing.  He or she said, "Calling someone with mental illness crazy is like calling someone with, say, diabetes broken."  I won't get into the still ongoing debate over whether mental illness is equivalent to physical illness.  (If you're wondering, the prevailing medical opinion--and mine--is that it is.)  I will say, though, that to reduce a complicated mental or mood disorder to "crazy" reflects insensitivity and disinterest toward something that is very difficult and very painful.

I do not believe that mental illness is "normal" or "good."  It is a result of the fall, and when Christ returns and restores the earth, there will be no more mental illness.  Even now, though, as evidenced through his time on Earth, Christ cares for those who are suffering the effects of sin and the fall.  When here, Christ healed the blind man and made the lame walk.  He wept when his friend died.  Surely we should show the same love, the same sensitivity and the same care.  A good place to start doing so is by changing our language.

Crazy (How We Talk about Mental Illness)

Today, in class, we began reading Virginia Woolf's novel The Voyage Out. Something came up, and one of my students mentioned that she read somewhere that Woolf was "maybe, borderline crazy?"  I responded that Woolf wasn't crazy but bipolar.  A large number of students responded, "Well, that's crazy."

I don't share this story to make my students look bad.  In fact, in the past year alone, I've had multiple conversations with various people--many of whom I love and respect--about the use of the term "crazy" to describe mentally ill people.  I think my students' reaction was "normal," and I tried not to over-react for the very reason that I think most people would have responded in the exact same way.  At the same time, though, as I walked back to my office, I realized just how much it bothered me that "crazy" was such a common and comparatively socially acceptable response to mental illness.


As someone who knows and loves many people with bipolar and other mental health disorders, I care very much about the way that our society thinks about mental illness and the way that it talks about mental illness. Once I got back to my office, I tried to find an article from a semi-reputable site which could maybe express my thoughts on the issue better than I could.  I found a few things, but nothing that really said what I wanted to say.  What I told my students in class was to "Never call someone with a mental illness crazy."  Then we moved on to talk about how Woolf's condition interacted with her writing life.  It bothered me, though, that I couldn't adequately articulate my reason behind that imperative on-the-spot.

In the time since, I have done some reading and thinking.  What I'd like to do here is briefly mention why calling mental illness "craziness" is unhelpful, harmful, and offensive:

1.  The attitudes with which we say a word and the connotations which the word has accumulated are as equally important as the word itself.  Think about the kinds of things you call "crazy."  Think about the contexts in which you have heard the word.  Also think of words like "insane" and "lunatic."  At one time, a word like "madness" or "insanity" may have been the medically correct word, but connotations and attitudes have since linked them to a negative stigma.  Most of us grew up being taught to never use the word "retard" or "retarded."  Yes, at one time, the medical profession did use these words, but in the past few decades, the word has been used almost exclusively negatively.  I'd argue that the same is true for "crazy," "insane," "madness," and "lunatic."


2.  One health provider's site had a blog post I found helpful.  In this post, the author argued that the way we talk about mental illness--and the stigma that results from that language--might prevent people from seeking professional help.  She wrote, "Imagine feeling physically ill and fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life. You’d likely seek medical help, and early intervention might well return you to full health. Imagine feeling mentally ill, fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life, yet being afraid to ask for help, terrified of being labelled as 'nuts,' 'crazy' or 'insane.' Imagine feeling that ill health was more tolerable than seeking treatment."  I know that this scenario goes beyond hypothesis: I'd dare to guess that it happens almost every day.  Even if calling someone or something "crazy" were not innately wrong, the way that our language could negatively affect those around us should be reason enough to modify it.


3.  The last thing I wanted to share was a quotation I found on--of all places--Yahoo Answers.  Not the most credible source for making an argument, but someone said something I thought was worth sharing.  He or she said, "Calling someone with mental illness crazy is like calling someone with, say, diabetes broken."  I won't get into the still ongoing debate over whether mental illness is equivalent to physical illness.  (If you're wondering, the prevailing medical opinion--and mine--is that it is.)  I will say, though, that to reduce a complicated mental or mood disorder to "crazy" reflects insensitivity and disinterest toward something that is very difficult and very painful.

I do not believe that mental illness is "normal" or "good."  It is a result of the fall, and when Christ returns and restores the earth, there will be no more mental illness.  Even now, though, as evidenced through his time on Earth, Christ cares for those who are suffering the effects of sin and the fall.  When here, Christ healed the blind man and made the lame walk.  He wept when his friend died.  Surely we should show the same love, the same sensitivity and the same care.  A good place to start doing so is by changing our language.