“That’s so crazy!”
“You must be crazy…”
‘Crazy’ is a word we hear thrown around often in our culture. We even have multiple variations now, with ‘craziness’, ‘crazy sauce’ and ‘cray cray’ floating around online and in person. I myself am guilty of using this word flippantly to describe anything from intense stress to something silly someone else says.
But when you are someone struggling with mental illness, hearing this word can be hurtful, or even offensive.
The Google dictionary defines “crazy” as “Mentally deranged, esp. as manifested in a wild or aggressive way,” and lists synonyms as “mad, insane, demented, daft, lunatic, and nutty”. Merriam-Webster defines “crazy” as “full of cracks or flaws”.
Not very flattering or particularly nice-sounding descriptions, especially since people who suffer from mental illness are only “full of flaws” as much as any other human being. To be human is to be flawed. We are not perfect creatures, and our deficits are not cause to be judged or treated with less love. Typically, being flawed is not something people willfully choose to be. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll have trust issues today,” or “You know what sounds fun? Depression and anxiety. I think I’ll have that.” Again, not very compassionate definitions. They certainly don’t reflect the lack of choice in having mental illness, or that those of us bearing that particular cross are as human as the rest.
Additionally, being labeled “crazy” or “insane” separates the accused into the category of “other”, someone who doesn’t belong, or someone who should be kept away. It implies distance and segregation. As human beings, one of our greatest innate fears is being alone or abandoned, so this implication can be particularly damaging.
Now I am not saying that anyone who casually uses the word “crazy” does so to cause insult or injury. Sometimes “crazy” is just a word, nothing else. But as someone who struggles with an oh-so-fun array of anxiety disorders, having someone call me crazy, even playfully, strikes fear into my already anxious heart.
My first reaction is panic, “What? Do they really think I’m crazy? Am I crazy?”, followed closely by defensiveness, “I’m not crazy! You’re crazy!”, and leads finally to sad acceptance, “Oh, well I do have PTSD. I’m not like other people. Maybe I am crazy.”
Now my response is certainly not indicative of a “normal” response. I don’t mean to assume that everyone would react as I do. But I imagine I am not the only person with mental illness who takes offense to being called crazy. I am not crazy. I am a child of God, first and foremost, that is who I AM. Crazy does not define me. Nor should it define anyone, regardless of their illnesses.
Those who struggle with this cross, are not meant to be ostracized, labeled negatively, or judged harshly. They are not meant to be talked about blithely, stigmatized or abandoned. They deserve respect, care and love like every other human being. They should be prayed for, empathized with, and encouraged. They still have something to contribute to society. They still have dignity.
So how are we as Christians called to treat those with mental illness?
1. Don’t add to social stigmas with flippant usage of words like “crazy”, “demented” or “insane”. The English language has an almost endless word bank of adjectives – find new, more appropriate ones. Expand your vocabulary. Not only will you avoid hurting those with mental illness, but you’ll also increase your Scrabble skills hardcore.
2. If you have loved ones struggling with mental illness, know that they do not do so willfully. Focus on their strengths, reminding yourself of their talents and appreciate them out loud. Let them know by your actions that they aren’t alone, that they are still loved and supported.
3. Pray for those who suffer from mental illness, that they may be healed and comforted by God’s grace and mercy. Pray that they will not be stigmatized, but shown love. Join in a novena to St. Dymphna, patroness of those with mental illness.
We are all called to love and uphold the dignity of every human person, big or small, wealthy or poor, sick or well. Let’s do so magnificently.