The Rapidian

Don't go mental?

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"the Interior Mechanisms"

"the Interior Mechanisms" / by Analog Mutant (Scott Warren)

I was reading an article a while back which reminded me that many members of the general public have little knowledge of what psychiatric conditions are really all about. At least many people are not sensitive to the very real pain associated with these treatable medical conditions and the people unfortunate enough to be living with such conditions. The author of the article I am referring to used the phrase, “don’t go mental” twice in one paragraph. I was left wondering what adult would use this language which I most often hear coming from the mouths of adolescents?  I was reminded that the prejudice which has existed for centuries still continues; and writers, as well as television journalists, movie producers, etc., still use language which makes their lack of knowledge, and/or their willingness to exploit a large group of people in the interest of “gripping news”, or for entertainment value, quite obvious. Now I suppose I could go on a diatribe and lambaste this writer, but it really isn’t about this writer - it is about our society. And perhaps I should mention, to his credit, that I found the entirety of the aforementioned article to be otherwise very sound and I think most people reading it probably understood what the author was trying to convey with the words,” …don’t go mental…”. Overall, I enjoyed the article and found myself in agreement with this author’s primary message.


Just to set the record straight for those without much, or any, mental health knowledge, I would like to present a few quotes from organizations devoted to sharing accurate information regarding mental health topics. First, The National Institute of Mental Health reports that, “one in four adults-approximately 57.7 million Americans-experience a mental health disorder in a given year”. Second, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says, “without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.” And finally, NAMI also says “Stigma (a mark of disgrace or disrepute) erodes confidence that mental disorders are real and treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery.”  Having worked in the mental health field for the past seven years, I accept these statements as factual based on my observations of various phenomena repeatedly presenting themselves on an almost daily basis, giving weight and substance to these quotes.

So why did I feel I should write this article and submit it as a citizen reporter for presentation as one of my first articles to be published on The Rapidian, aside from the obvious? Why would I throw down the gauntlet and subject myself to a future of potential nitpicking by Rapidian readers and writers who disagree with the position I am attempting to articulate in this article? This is why – Do you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in Kent County? And do you also know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students nationally? I wonder how many of these young people land on websites believed to be credible sources of information and run across blurbs like, “…don’t go mental…”, which seems to infer, at least in the context it was used, that to, "go mental” leaves an undesirable stain on our community, reflecting poorly on the citizenry of  Grand Rapids. “Don’t be rude to visitors by intruding on their privacy” is the sentiment I believe the author was trying to convey, but that statement is not very dramatic or creative, is it? The fact is that people with psychiatric conditions often avoid seeking treatment because of our society’s inert and continually discriminating views surrounding health matters associated with the mind.  

While issues once thought to be taboo are now being discussed openly within our community, why is there still so much fear and avoidance when it comes to discussing psychiatric illnesses? And why do we continue to allow discriminatory language to be used simply to present a distorted view of reality or artificially enhance a perception? Perhaps it is the ongoing sensational use of the terminology which has blocked our discussion from taking a rational course within the larger community. The “psycho- killer” and “deranged lunatic” are still very much alive in many of the fictional works created to entertain us and, unfortunately, sometimes even those intended to inform us (e.g. “Police indicate this psycho is still on the loose”).  And it is language such as this, used to capture the consumer’s attention, which leads many to believe that all people with ”mental illness” are violent or otherwise can’t fit within the constraints of a sophisticated society, but that’s hogwash. There are CEO’s, lawyers, doctors, teachers, carpenters, judges, custodians, electricians and (insert any profession here) who suffer from psychiatric illness. If we really had 57.7 million consistently dangerous and rude people in this country we would certainly be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t we? America could potentially become a country run amuck with menacing outlaws. But because good news about how, for example, a person with a psychiatric illness helped someone else who was in peril rarely gets noticed by the media (or at least the fact that the person has an illness is not usually noted as a part of such a story), many people think of all, or most, people with psychiatric conditions as being dangerous or in some way violent or irrational. This is all too often the picture society most wants to paint with respect to people with psychiatric illness and the message is all too effective even though it doesn’t accurately reflect the truth.

Just one more example, among many, of the misuse of terminology I recently noticed was when I heard a meteorologist refer to the drastic changes in the next week’s weather as “schizophrenic”, accompanied by a conceited smile.  I nearly shudder at such blatant ignorance; the meteorologist obviously knows nothing about schizophrenia or its symptoms and is pandering to the general public's much maligned understanding of this all too often devastating illness.  Now, if the meteorologist had referred to that same drastically fluctuating weather forecast as a “dissociative identity disorder” that might be closer to accurate, but it is still inappropriate (and I suspect most people wouldn’t know what that was intended to mean anyway). I wonder how people would react if the meteorologist referred to the next severe thunderstorm as “heart disease”, or, “a massive stroke” (accompanied by the smirk). How about if we regularly refer to heavy weather as, “a cancer”? Or maybe when we are stuck under a particular air mass and little or no change is expected in the weather it should be said that we are, “in a coma”. How would that play with the viewing public? Now that is good informative and creative entertainment, wouldn’t you say? Heart disease, strokes, cancer, schizophrenia, yeeha!  And while these questions are obviously intended to be rhetorical, I sincerely hope this article will enlighten The Rapidian’s readership and begin a rational and realistic dialogue in our community about the facts surrounding psychiatric illness; because the myths, the bigotry, the blatant discrimination and the incorrect use of the language associated with psychiatric medicine are much too abundant and people really are suffering and dying as a result.

Disclosure: The author is part of the education team for the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.

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Joel - Nice to see your voice here as a Rapidian contributor. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of readers. I think it's important for people to think about language and how we use or (mis)use it. You make some good points here and thank you for having the courage to address this topic.


I notice some of the same inaccuracies when people talk about depression or "being depressed". Being depressed and suffering from depression are two very different things - depression being a severely debilitating disease. There are also different levels of depression. (ie, major depressive disorder, situational depression, etc.) Some don't always realize that loss of energy, a bleak outlook on life, and extreme self-critical thoughts or feelings of worthlessness are actually symptoms of depression and these things are not so simple to change for a person who suffers from this illness.


Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts on this matter. I look forward to seeing more articles from you in the future.

Nancy Lautenbach


I really appreciate you writing this article and the courage that it takes to publicly fight the stigma that is associated with mental illness.  It is a crippling and disabling affliction that can tear.  Keep up the good work. 

Hi Joel. As a rule I don't jump into comments from others about my essays, because I had my chance. I have however allowed myself an exception (in "Give Away The Stone") for technical clarification.

So - in way of technical clarification - I'd only offer that my writing is heavily influenced by English and Irish authors, past and contemporary. Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" is my second favorite piece of literature. My writing is peppered with U.K. references, from my exclusive use of the metric system to terms like "mental."

It has been my understanding that "mental" long ago ceased any referential overlap with proper psychiatry - and instead only served to signify "wacky." I was previously unaware of any American-English connotations as they relate to the field of psychiatry, or pejorative implications whatsoever.

That being said, while I'm militant about free speech, I have personally chosen to avoid using words like "fag" or "retarded," however I may intend them. There exists too much potential for unintended interpretation, which reduces each's effectiveness as tools of communication. The cost/benefit ratio isn't there, with those words. I'd apply this same filter to any term that loses its precisiveness.

Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughtful piece. The dialog is good and I like having things to think about.

So, cheers!

Erin Wilson

Erin, I was hesitant about weighing in on your clarification, but wanted to share some information which I believe is relevant. First, I would like you to know, if you don’t already, that I did not intend to have a link to your article. It was suggested to me by a Rapidian staff member and I said I had no problem with it, but indicated I hoped you would be contacted for approval as well. I had intentionally not submitted my article sooner simply because I didn’t want to draw attention to you personally; “that’s not how I roll”. I think the article states very clearly that it is not about you and linking to the article does allow the reader to confirm, or disavow, the context as I interpreted it, so I think the link was a good idea. Second, the word “mental” has a great deal of overlap within the psychiatric community. “Mental health”, “mental illness” and other such terms are used quite frequently, but I know this because I am closely associated with the psychiatric community. As a footnote to this, I would also like to point out that I, personally, do not like the term “mental illness” because what we call “mental illness” is, in fact, physical illness. But elaborating on this topic is something for a future article. Third, I am very much a supporter of free speech and I don’t believe you were suggesting otherwise, but I do believe that most people are unaware of the fact that many people within  the psychiatric community are as offended by slang usage of terminology as many members of the GLBT community are of words such as “fag” or people with developmental disabilities which influence intellectual ability are of “retarded”, to use your two examples. I don’t think the cost/benefit ratio is there when using vocabulary that can be disparaging to all people with medical conditions of the mind and I am particularly concerned with how such language influences people in their decisions to seek, or avoid, treatment. It is a problem in our society which I believe deserves much more attention. With that said, I also wanted to let you know I read your, “Give away the stone” series and you have given me several things to think about as well. Perhaps as I give it more thought, I will completely agree and future comments will follow the same rules which guide you. Thank you for your insight and a job well done. Cheers, and peace, to you as well.