by Ari Borhanian
Warning: This blog post uses some dated psychological terms for educational reasons.
Language is a fluid thing, and new words are being created and adapted all the time. Words we used to consider everyday and normal are sometimes replaced, whether it’s due to a change in societal standards or just a desire for more casual word usage (I mean, who uses verily anymore?) In the study of psychology, the words used to describe those suffering from mental illness change all the time, and often for reasons related to the connotations and widespread usage of the words.
We’ve all seen the change in values over the originally medically-termed “retard” over the last few years. What used to be a common word in the medical field (to the point where the word was only wiped from federal records in 2010) has now become defunct. One thing that society tends to overlook is the depressingly reliability with which the public will co-opt words that are intended for medical use into harmful slurs. In the 1800s, the word “simpleton” was coined by S.G. Howe to describe those with minor intellectual disabilities. While this word never truly caught on in the medical community, its successor, “feeble-minded,” taken from the latin flebilis, found a more widespread use. Psychologist Henry Goddard coined the term “moron” (after words such as “sophomore” and “oxymoron”) to describe intellectually disabled individuals. Other words used at the time, such as “idiot” and “imbecile,” were also originally meant to describe those with intellectual disabilities. Once again, time has changed the intention of these words to the point where people no longer recognize the ableism they are charged with.
There are many reasons to be cautious about the language we use. By using harmful, stigmatized language, we are not only putting down those suffering from disabilities and mental illness, but creating an environment in which they are afraid to stand out or talk about their struggles. We want to create a society in which individuals feel open and invited to express their struggles without fear of mockery and derision. The fact that so many words have been coined in an effort to give a voice to these struggles, only to quickly be used in harmful context, shows that we require a new and progressive approach to how we talk about these issues.
The blame doesn’t lie solely on society, of course; it also lies on the media that tends to push this stigmatization. The tabloid and general media love drama, and using terminology like “crazy” and “bonkers” and “insane” to describe people suffering breakdowns or other afflictions is just one example of how the sensationalism of the media can play into how we perceive the mentally ill. If the media approaches these issues with care, empathy, and open-mindedness, then so too will those consuming it. If it instead pokes fun, stereotypes, or remains willfully ignorant in the name of a catchy headline or shocking story, then it only perpetuates and worsens the problems that led to the environment for such words to flourish in the first place.
We can do better. We are doing better. The millennial generation has been making strides to change the way we talk about mental health, and it’s important that we continue down this path. Now that words like the r-word are, thank goodness, fading from the casual lexicon, let us not find new words to try to replace them, but rather ask ourselves why we need cruel and derisive words like those in the first place. Maybe the answer is that we don’t.
“History of Stigmatizing Names for Intellectual Disabilities Continued.” Mental Help History of Stigmatizing Names for Intellectual Disabilities Continued Comments, www.mentalhelp.net/intellectual-disabilities/history-of-stigmatizing-names-for-intellectual-disabilities-continued/.
Nunn, Gary. “Time to Change the Language We Use about Mental Health | Mind Your Language.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 Feb. 2014, www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/feb/28/mind-your-language-mental-health.