Naming Names: Why “The Mentally Ill” Is The Wrong Thing To Call Us

When Crazy Good Parent was conceived, like many babies, it didn’t have a name. Sure, there was a list of names. But like those my husband and I generated for our first born, none of the names on that list really worked. And just as my son’s name came to me in an instant, “Crazy Good Parent,” popped into my head, accompanied by a choir of angels singing, “Hallelujah! The right name is born.”

Writing for Crazy Good Parent regularly presents a naming dilemma of a different sort: what to call the people and problems I am writing about. Are we mentally ill? Or do we have disorders? Should I refer to our mental health, our mental diagnoses or our mental issues? I keep looking for the perfect name for our kind, a concise descriptive term, and coming up empty.

I’m not alone. Writing for CommonHealth.wbur.org, Carey Goldberg notes she winces every time she reads the phrase “the mentally ill.” Her post, aptly titled “A Phrase To Renounce For 2014: ‘The Mentally Ill’,” makes the case for renouncing use of “the mentally ill” by journalists.

The article is well worth a read. Based on interviews with psychiatrists and Goldberg’s experience in covering health issues for WBUR, it explores the problem of labeling those with mental illnesses/disorders/issues as “the mentally ill.” The first problem, for Dr. Paul Summergrad, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, is using “the.”

“Imagine if I said that about any other group. It suggests that people who suffer with these conditions are somehow other than us, and can be put in a discrete and often stigmatized category. It creates a sense of otherness that is not the reality, statistically, of these illnesses.”

Any other group? I try a thought experiment, the headline “Equal coverage for the women.” Weird. “New era for the gays.” Offensive. “Crime and the blacks.” I get the point.

Being other, that is, a specific subset of humanity, is only part of the problem with “the” for me. As a person who is part of that other, I read “the mentally ill” and feel like someone elected me to represent all of the mentally ill/disordered/issued people in the universe. Lumping us all together simply furthers the idea that mental illness is a big pot of psychotic stew. Pull anyone of us out and you’ll get an incurable, unstable mess of a person. Summergrad calls this “a notion that it’s a uni-modal type of thing. And I think we need a more inclusive and more granular language.” No, I have no idea what granular language might be.

Goldberg suggests using “people first” language, something she learned when writing about people who recovered from mental illness and went on to be “peer specialists” who help others with mental illnesses. The peer specialists told her “a person is not defined by a diagnosis. “If you have a mental illness, it doesn’t define you any more than your heart disease defines you if you’re a cardiac patient.” They suggest “people with mental illness” as the appropriate term for people with mental illness.

I don’t completely agree that mental illness doesn’t define me. My personal history is intimately tied to my having bipolar disorder, so much so that I’m not even sure how to refer to myself when I talk about my mind. Sometimes I say I have bipolar disorder; other times I say I am bipolar. Infrequently, I’ll say I have bipolar disorder II, but usually only when I’m speaking with another person with bipolar disorder. If I didn’t have bipolar disorder, there are many things in my life I simply wouldn’t have done. How can I say, then, that bipolar disorder doesn’t in some ways define me?

The biggest problem I have with calling what I have a mental illness is that I don’t feel ill. Neither do others I know who live on the same figurative block. “I don’t feel sick. I feel like me,” one Crazy Good parent posted to the Facebook page. “I feel different from other people, but not always in a way that needs to be ‘cured’.” Like me, she doesn’t have a ready alternative, but “saying ‘mentally ill’ is like saying ‘physically ill’ to describe everyone who happens to be sick at this moment, including colds and cancer.”

Goldberg’s experts, recognizing the limitations of the term “mental illness” still use it. This surprises me. I spent my most recent therapy session reviewing the DSM-5, the mental health worker’s Bible of diagnostic criteria, with my therapist. Turns out all of the things that get lumped into the mental illness category aren’t illnesses at all; every one of them is a disorder.

I choose what I’ll call my disorder based on the audience. To those close to me, I’ll say I’m crazy. The reader quoted above likes calling herself mental, or says she has a “touch of the crazies.” Neither of us is particularly keen on having others describe us that way.

I have a friend, also a Crazy Good Parent, who may have the “what to call ourselves” answer. She has autism spectrum disorder. I’ll give her credit, whether it’s true or not, for developing the phrase “neurotypical” to describe people living without a diagnosis, those our society considers normal. The rest of us are “neurodiverse.” I like it. “Neurodiversity” carries none of the stigmatizing weight of illness—we aren’t insane or sick. Our brains just don’t work the same way, neither the way neurotypicals brains do, nor the way brains of other neurodiverse people work.

I’m going to use “neurodiverse” to describe those of us who are striving to be Crazy Good parents, though I may also refer to disorders. On occasion, I may even use “crazy” and “mental” as well. Whatever I choose to describe us, though, it will be inclusive and as far removed from illness as possible.

What do you call yourself? Do you have different names depending on whom you’re talking to? What do you think about “neurodiverse”? Add your voice in the comments.

 

 

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11 responses to “Naming Names: Why “The Mentally Ill” Is The Wrong Thing To Call Us

  1. I keep circling your question wishing I had a suggestion for a name that would encompass both need and ability, a word that could capture the endless spectrum of individuals who are greater than the sum of their labels. Neurodiversity is a good start.

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  2. Neurodiverse it is! I’ve been coming to an understanding that my mental/emotional cycles are not something to be overcome or cured from, but rather something to be understood and accepted as part of me being me, therefore, worked with instead of fought against.

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    • Completely agree! I look forward to the days when I’m on the upswing and try to get as much done as possible when they happen. I know I won’t want to move in just a little while, so grab the energy when it comes. I have the hardest time when I’m down and others don’t really get it. My husband does, but there are other people who think I should just be able to shake it off. Ha!

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  3. I like neurodiverse too. I definitely NEVER think of myself as mentally ill. I do feel like most of the time, I just think differently than everyone around me. So….maybe I’ll start thinking of it that way. 🙂

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    • Well, dang. I think WordPress isn’t allowing me to respond only to Kina when I also want to respond to Perfection. Sigh. Well, ladies, I know I’m lucky to have someone who gets it. Thinking in terms of neurodiversity is freeing, but I have to remember to take my meds, too. Otherwise, I’ll be more than diverse!

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  4. Pingback: Mentally Ill or Neurodiverse? | Human In Recovery·

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