Crazy is a tricky little word. It can be an absolutely horrible thing (“My ex is crazy”), but it can also be used in relatively mundane ways (“my cat has the kitty crazies!”). Many people in social justice circles have put a blanket ban in their own speech and writing on the word crazy because of the ways it’s used to discount the validity of those who are mentally ill and the way it often is used to discount other people by implying that they are mentally ill. It’s also used to stigmatize and put away those who have mental illness, brush them under the carpet and dismiss their needs, opinions, thoughts, and feelings.
I have never felt the need to remove this word from my vocabulary (although I do make a point not to use it to describe someone whose opinions differ from mine or whose behavior I don’t approve of). Especially as someone who is diagnosed crazy in many ways, I’ve also felt that I get to decide how far I want to go in removing the word from my vocab because I am the relevant group. However I also care about other people with mental illness and I want to be careful not to use words that contribute to oppression and stigma.
However I also feel the need to be careful with my language and not restrict myself unnecessarily. If I’m going to make the effort to erase a word from my vocabulary, I want to have good reason to do so. And I am still trying to understand what it is about using the word crazy to describe something out of the ordinary, something extreme, or something high energy that contributes to stigma and oppression.
So I’d like to take this time to imagine how using the word crazy in offhanded or unimportant contexts might have negative or unintended consequences.
There are a few ways that the word crazy is used when it’s not being used to refer to someone whose behavior appears to be disconnected from reality, self-harming, or in some other way unstable. Each of these ways has different implications and thus different consequences. The first is to imply that something is weird or different. You see a rainbow painted car driving down the street and yell “that car is crazy!” Oftentimes it’s used in a positive way, and so some might view it as a good thing. The problem is that the implication is that crazy means you stand out, you’re not like others, you should be viewed differently, or you can’t fit in. It’s used to separate, and if someone who is mentally ill interprets it to mean that, they might view it as saying that they are just as out there as that ridiculous car.
Another potential way to use it is for something that is extreme. When I see someone ski jumping I often call it crazy because HOLY SHIT THAT’S A GIANT JUMP. The big problem I see here is that it implies that the behavior of those who are mentally ill is always extreme and always inappropriate for the situation (since that’s what crazy means apparently). If something is crazy when it’s over the top or irrational, the implication is that mental illness means being over the top. This plays right into the stereotype of the crazy ex, or the violent psycho murderer. But there are all kinds of mental illness, not all of which involve extreme emotions, and even those that do don’t mean the individual is always over the top.
The final way that I’ve used crazy (or heard it used) seems to be something high energy. It might also be taken to mean out of control in similar contexts. I’m not sure if I see a problem with using crazy to mean high energy except that it’s fairly unrelated to most mental illness (I would love to hear from someone with ADHD or autism here as those seem to be more relevant). But out of control certainly has lots of problems. Out of control implies that someone with mental illness is throwing a temper tantrum, that they can’t behave in an adult fashion, that they’re not rational, that their emotions don’t make any sense, that they need to be controlled. Bad news bears.
The other thing that could be problematic about any of these definitions of crazy is that they muddy up what the medical diagnoses actually mean. While some mental illnesses may contain elements of each of these things, none of these is an actual mental illness. There is already stigma around getting diagnosed, difficulties to diagnosis, misunderstanding about different mental illnesses and thus mistreatment for them, and so there could certainly be an argument made that we should do our utmost to clarify what mental illness is and isn’t.
Now with all that said, I do think that most of these uses of crazy have become utterly disconnected from mental illness. When I hear someone call the cat crazy, my mind does not have any associations of mental health, of diagnoses, of anything remotely related to the actual experience of being crazy. If it’s being used as an entirely unrelated word, can it really affect the life of those with mental illness?
I don’t have the resources or research to speak to that question, so all I can say is that these more disconnected definitions of crazy are significantly more complicated than I have thought in the past. I personally will be more careful with my language. I would love to hear more thoughts from others who are strongly on one side or the other of this topic.