“Talking Crazy:” The Controversial Video Trying to Change Our Mental Health Language

Trigger Warning: Ableist Language

Adam’s Place is a small non-profit advocacy group with a mission I can stand behind: “To debunk the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education.” I, like many others, became aware of the organization this week through their most recent YouTube video, which has been given positive coverage by a handful of fellow advocacy groups, most notably Bring Change 2 Mind. The short video was shared with me by a close friend and mental health advocate, who prefaced it with a simple “Tell me what you think of this.”

I had a bad feeling about the video immediately upon seeing its’ title: “Talking Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness.” The subtitle was promising: after all, ‘breaking the silence’ is a key part of what I do as an advocate, and I firmly believe that opening a conversation about mental health is the first and most important event in a chain reaction leading to a world where people have access to and willingly use the resources they need.

What I was stuck on was “crazy.” I’ve written in previous posts about my thoughts about the word, but it seems appropriate to expound upon them here. In my early days of advocating, I was a staunch enforcer of the social rule that the word “crazy” was not to be used in my presence, ever. “Crazy,” I would explain, is a word that attaches the harmful stereotypes surrounding mental illness to the people, events, objects, and concepts that the word is used to describe. It’s an adjective that refers not only to the absurd, the inexplicable, and the bizarre, but the laughable, the dangerous, and the outright wrong: all things that, of course, I didn’t and still don’t want mental illness to be viewed as.

My views on the word have changed, if only slightly. After a year of developing a reputation as “the guy who won’t let you say ‘crazy'” (ask my friends; they’ll tell you), I began to examine what my actual problem was with the word. What I decided was that my efforts to banish the word from the lexicon were, though well-intentioned, a bit wasteful. Yes, it is true that “crazy” is an ableist slur, used to oppress people who have, or are perceived to have, any form of mental illness. It is a word that is, I still feel, never to be used to describe any person. To do so is simply dehumanizing. However, I no longer feel the concern I once felt about using “crazy” to describe, for example, a hectic day at work. If you want to say that you just made the craziest game-winning touchdown, or that you have a crazy amount of homework, I’m not going to stop you. That kind of policing is, to me, a distraction from taking real steps toward changing the mental health conversation.

That said, I was very shocked by what I heard in “Talking Crazy.” “Crazy people are everywhere,” the narrator tells us. “I’m not saying that to scare you. If anything, I hope it will encourage you.” These words are accompanied by an image of a group of smiling people, each labelled by either a diagnosis (schizophrenia, major depression, OCD, bipolar) or an ill-formed punchline (“likes Justin Bieber”). Throughout the uncomfortable four minutes, the narrator continues to refer to “crazy people,” while asserting that not everyone is part of this category. His key goal, it seems, is to justify and encourage the use of the word in our discussions of mental health. He argues that “mental illness” is a cold and clinical phrase, while “crazy” is conversational, and inclusive in meaning. His analogy (which I find flimsy) is the word “love,” which is almost infinite in its versatility in the vernacular.

What it comes down to is an attempt to ameliorate the word “crazy.” Much like slurs such as “bitch” or the N-word have been reclaimed and redefined by the groups they are used to oppress, this video aims to “take back” crazy, and make something positive of it. I understand this premise: the implication is that introducing “crazy” into our conversations about our own mental health might bring some levity to what is often a dark circumstance, or even help us to accept that mental health struggles are a part of all of our lives. The way it’s presented here, though, is unsettling. Referring to “crazy people” the way this video does creates the Us vs. Them mentality that is at the heart of mental health stigma: that is, the false notion that there are people who are crazy, and people who are not. Everyone exists on the mental health spectrum. There is no line of distinction that can be made between someone who is “crazy” and someone who is not, and for the narrator of this video to have done so is both off-putting and offensive.

Beyond that, there’s a big difference between “crazy” and words that have been ameliorated by other marginalized or oppressed groups. Those words are attached to groups that exist by shared Identity. Sociologically, historically, and culturally, race and gender are generally considered capital-I Identities. I don’t mean to say that anyone is defined by race or gender. I am aware that many people choose not to identify with any race or gender, and that many people who do feel no connection between their race and gender and who they are as a human being. What I am saying though, is that the long history of categorizing and creating hierarchies based on race and gender have created communities that seek and gain empowerment through their deeply-connected nature.

Mental health forms a very different community. While mental health and illness, by their very nature, have the potential to be intrinsically tied to a person’s sense of self, a diagnosis or a mental health label of any kind is not a capital-I Identity. The reason for this is well-being: building an Identity around a diagnosis is a massive hindrance to recovery. Calling oneself a “crazy person” has the potential not to facilitate acceptance, but to create an unhealthy obsession with one’s status as a person with mental illness. To put it plainly, I’m just not comfortable with that.

What bothers me most in “Let’s Talk Crazy” is the implication that the viewers will instantly accept the video’s premise. I’m not ready to live in a world where it’s okay to call me crazy just because that’s easier for people than saying “mental illness.” I’ll gladly continue to be open about my mental health experiences, even at the risk of being labelled and judged. I want the mental health conversation to happen, and to be framed in an educated manner, and to be accessible to everyone. What I will not accept is for my mental health to be discussed and understood on someone else’s terms. I am a person with bipolar disorder, but as long as I make the choice not to call myself “a crazy person”, I hope that you will make the choice not to call me one, either.


Open Letter to Sinéad O’Connor

Dear Sinéad O’Connor,
I am writing, of course, in response to your highly-publicized communication with Miley Cyrus. I assume that your intention in contacting Cyrus was not to spark a celebrity feud to be weighed in on by tabloids and bloggers, there’s really no putting the toothpaste back in that tube, so I hope you don’t mind if I join the conversation.

You’re coming from the right place, Ms. O’Connor. You’re coming from an informed, well-meaning, enlightened place. You reached out to a young artist who was in a position you recognized as dangerous and offered your experience as a means of reaching her with advice that you saw as important. I sincerely believe that Miley Cyrus’ choice to use nudity and sexualized imagery in her work is her own, and is her genuine self-expression, but I applaud you for respectfully bringing your concerns to her.

When your letter was met with rudeness and mockery, you did something else for which I applaud you: you boldly called Cyrus out on ridiculing celebrities who have lived with mental health struggles, and demanded an apology. You spoke up for yourself and others whose mental health difficulties have been exacerbated by taking place in the public eye. You called her irresponsible, and you very plainly informed her that “Mockery causes death.” Your strong stance against mental health stigma is appreciated.

However, I take some issue with the way you expressed yourself to Cyrus. The following passages from your second and third letters, respectively, were profoundly hypocritical, and detract heavily from your argument:

“You will yourself one day suffer such illness, that is without doubt. The course you have set yourself upon can only end in that, trust me.”
“When you end up in the psych ward or rehab I’ll be happy to visit you.. and would not lower myself to mock you.”

How does it serve you to chidingly predict that Cyrus will become ill and be hospitalized? These comments, to me, read as just as offensive as Cyrus’ comments to you. Your letter simultaneously castigates Miley Cyrus for not taking mental health seriously while attacking her own, despite your having no knowledge of her actual health situation. To threateningly use an ill-informed guess at a person’s future mental health (something you have no authority, or right, to do) as you did is a sign that you’ve let your emotions get in the way of forming a composed, level-headed response to Cyrus.

Furthermore, I feel that to repeatedly call Cyrus “anti-female” is a harsh characterization, and demonstrates a limiting and closed-minded perception of what it means to be female. Amanda Palmer has already written to you on this topic much more eloquently than I am equipped to, but I feel it necessary to express that I wholeheartedly stand with her on a woman’s right to be in control of her own sexuality.

That said, I thank you for being a true and genuine advocate for mental health. Thank you for using your voice and your respected (albeit controversial) place in the culture to speak out for people who are often made to feel afraid to speak for themselves. As a fellow advocate, however, I ask that you please take more care in the future to speak with fairness so that your valuable perspectives about mental health stigma can make the impact they deserve to.

Best wishes,
Jared Wolf