The other day I put up a post in which I said that I think Glenn Beck is bipolar or manic depressive. A colleague messaged me on Facebook and called me out on it, suggesting — politely — that I try to avoid using language that marginalizes or diminishes those who struggle with mental illness. As I reread the post, I realized that she was right and I sought out some advice on how to change the language I use.
In particular, I sought the advice of two bloggers on this network, Miri Mogilevsky and Kate Donovan. Both have written bravely and extensively about their own struggles in this regard and both are very knowledgeable about mental illness and about marginalizing language. And I want to thank them for taking the time to talk it over with me and educate me no the subject and to do so with kindness and understanding. I also want to thank Lily Wololo for bringing it to my attention in the first place. It’s important to have friends who are willing to call you out but do so not in a “you’re a horrible person” way but in a “you can do better than this” way. And it’s important to listen to them and take their concerns seriously rather than being defensive, which is not always easy to do.
Miri’s advice was good:
But it’s a convenient shorthand to call someone crazy, loony or insane. Everyone knows what we mean by it, that this person has ideas that are beyond the pale and so disconnected from reality as to be utterly absurd. I use those terms constantly here and always have and I’m sure everyone knows that I don’t intend to disparage those who really do suffer from some form of mental illness. But that isn’t really the point, is it? If it makes those people, many of whom I care about a great deal, uncomfortable and makes them feel more marginalized than they already are, I need to try to find other ways to express myself.
My own position on this is pretty simple: the only time one should use mental illness-related terms to describe a person or that person’s behavior is when they know for a fact that that person has either been diagnosed with that mental illness by a professional, or self-identifies with that mental illness because they believe that they have it but perhaps haven’t been able/willing to access professional mental healthcare. Further, mental illness-related terms should never be used in a derogatory way. Just as it’s offensive to call someone “gay” instead of boring or stupid, it’s offensive to call someone “crazy” or “bipolar” instead of “wrong” or “harmful,” which I’m sure are two things that definitely apply to Glenn Beck.
Miri gave me a link to a post by Jennifer Kesler offering some replacement words. Writing is what I do and words are what I love; it may not be easy, but I’m going to try to stop using these words, at least to describe people rather than ideas. I may still slip up now and then, and if I do feel free to call me out on it.