Ableist language: a culture of carelessness
February 23, 2018
During my time away from Bowdoin, my life changed dramatically when somebody close to me was diagnosed with a severe case of bipolar disorder. Part of their diagnosis also included “psychotic tendencies,” or sensory experiences of things that do not exist and/or beliefs with no basis in reality. This person has an extreme case of their disorder, but through months of therapy, medication and support groups, they have stabilized and managed to live a semi-normal life. The disease rose with little warning and has affected and changed every aspect of their life.
Returning back to Bowdoin after witnessing such an intense struggle with mental health, I have been surprised by how casually people use the terms “bipolar” and especially “psycho” in everyday rhetoric on campus.
“I was being so psycho last night, I texted him like four times;” “I hear that guy went kind of psycho abroad;” “I swear to God, my professor is psycho, he assigned the entire book for Tuesday.” These are a few real examples of times that friends have used such language and probably sound familiar to many members of the campus community.
When I hear people around me use the word “psycho” or “bipolar,” I immediately think of the day that the person close to me received their diagnosis, how shattered they were by those words.
I think of the long days I spent in hospitals alongside them as they worked to defy those words, grappling with their diagnosis and unable to control the mania and delusions caused by the disease.
I think of their strength as they came to terms with those words, words that they will have to live with for the rest of their life.
Bipolar. Psychotic. Words that have immeasurable power in that person’s world, power that is inconceivable for those not struggling with such diseases.
Usually, when people use language that is politically incorrect, they are making a conscious decision to do so. For example, many people, myself included, occasionally choose to use the word “bitch,” despite their knowledge of the word’s misogynist undertones. In the case of mentally ableist words and phrases, I believe that many people on campus are unaware of the implications of their language and how it might affect people struggling with mental health disorders and those close to them.
“Psycho” and “bipolar” are the words that affect me most personally. However, the prevalent use of the words demonstrates a larger lack of knowledge on campus about mental ableism, and there are many other mental diagnoses that Bowdoin students use out of context daily. While explaining my discomfort with the word “psycho” to one of my friends, for example, she expressed similar feelings when people use the term “OCD,” short for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with which she struggles. Other examples of mentally ableist terms include manic, sociopathic, schizophrenic, neurotic and references to ADHD and PTSD.
It is not surprising that the use of mentally ableist language is so prevalent at Bowdoin, given the current political climate. Last June, Donald Drumpf responded to criticism from two reporters by tweeting, calling them “crazy Mika” and “psycho Joe.” Drumpf constantly uses words such as “insane” and “psycho” to insult opponents, normalizing such language in the public spotlight. Ironically, many of Drumpf’s opponents have employed similar tactics, claiming that Drumpf is mentally unwell, attributing his volatile actions to a mental health disorder. These kinds of accusations insult those really struggling with mental health disorders. Furthermore, they dismiss Drumpf’s actions by attributing them some other source. Drumpf is not mentally unwell; he is an unfit ruler with poor judgement.
Reflecting on my feelings about the use of the words “psycho” and “bipolar,” I have grappled with the sentiment that political correctness has come too far at Bowdoin and language been “over-policed.” However, I can’t change my discomfort with the terms. People can make the choice to use these words, but they should acknowledge the implications when they do so.
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