The Damage We Do When We Throw Around Terms Like ‘Crazy’ 

July is BIPOC mental health month and a good time to reflect on how we use these terms, and their impact on people of color. (Photograph courtesy of Alex Green/Pexels)

by Isha Weerasinghe

At least twice a day, I hear the phrases “It’s driving me insane!” or “That was crazy” to describe everyday occurrences. 

Words like “crazy,” “mad,” “insane,” and “nuts” have been completely absorbed into our lexicon, and we don’t think twice about using them. Casual use of these terms, however, can be stigmatizing and dehumanizing for people with mental health conditions. 

People often don’t think about the origin of these phrases or their true meaning. They often reinforce society’s negative view of people struggling with their mental health and can lead to fatal consequences.

Several decades ago my mother was diagnosed with a serious mental health condition — undifferentiated schizophrenia — bringing this issue close to my heart. Her experiences motivated me to pursue a career in mental health policy and devote my energy to eradicating stigma and expanding access to culturally responsive care. 

When someone casually says, “she’s so crazy” in an off-handed way, they could be talking about someone like my mom. 

Reducing her and others with similar conditions to a diagnosis is irresponsible, inhumane, and morally reprehensible. Diagnostic labels and their negative associations don’t allow us to see the humanity of people beyond their symptoms.

Many of our most popular media outlets use the words “crazy” and “insane” to describe politicians across the political spectrum. From lawmakers to policies, “crazy” and “insane” are weaponized against ideas and people. Although it may seem benign, using words in this context harms people struggling with mental health. 

These words have a long history. “Mad” and “madman” have origins dating back to oral traditions in the late 8th or early 7th centuries B.COther terminology derived from the Western concept of madness describes people as “unhealthy” or “unstable,” all of which connote negative states of being. 

This concept reinforced the notion that one‘s mental health state was static, based on a subjective binary of sanity versus insanity, “good” versus “bad.” Although the usage of these words and phrases depends on context, madness is always linked with adverse mental health. The English language does not provide enough flexibility to allow nuance as well as positive, strength-based associations of the mental health spectrum.

Using words such as “crazy,” “mad,” and “insane” perpetuates mental health stigma and stereotypes. In a society filled with such stigma, families and community members may consider someone with a mental health condition to have done something wrong or not been “strong enough” in their mind to get better. 

By calling someone “crazy,” you are saying that their actions are outside the realm of what is considered “normal,” and therefore, they are “bad.” These associations can be harmful to people who have mental health conditions that are then exacerbated through personal circumstances, family relationships, environment, racism, discrimination, and societal factors.

Characterizing policies and people by how “crazy” and “insane” they are also makes it harder for people living with mental health conditions to access care and support. The more we treat people experiencing mental health struggles with disdain or contempt, the less likely people will seek out the help they need. This is especially true for Black and brown people, who already experience barriers to health care, including medical racism. No one wants a negative label on their back. 

If you’re feeling guilty about using these words, there is a silver lining. Some Mad Activists are reclaiming “crazy” and “mad” as empowering terms to describe themselves and reject the stigma that has always accompanied those terms, within and outside of the medical system. When considering these terms, we must follow the lead of people with lived experience. We must provide Mad Activists a platform to help us collectively understand how one’s mental health experiences can be part of one’s identity. 

For those of us without lived experience, let’s think twice about throwing around words such as “insane” and “crazy” and find more precise and less stigmatizing language to make our point. Stop and think about what you are trying to say and who you may be hurting with your words. It will take many people to stop mental health stigma — and we can start with the language we use. 

Isha Weerasinghe is a senior policy analyst focused on mental health with the Center for Law and Social Policy.