I’m Still Thinking about the Effects of Labels for Mental Illness and Disability

Every once in a while, a subject gets into my head and just stays there, gnawing away at my free time and causing me to think and think. The topic of how often we refer to negative things in terms once used to describe people living with disabilities or mental illnesses just won’t go away. Now that I am aware of how often these terms are used, I see (or hear) them everywhere, especially in casual conversation, but sometimes even in more serious speech and writing. This has led me to a loose collection of not-all-that-related thoughts.

So much negativity! Image by @kelsen28 via Twenty20

Where do we see these terms?

I do NOT see these pejorative terms used (often) in the news, magazines, or academic books. That’s a good sign I guess. The one exception seems to be the “crippled economy” and the like. I am wondering of that persists because circumstances actually can cripple concepts like economies, degrees of debt, etc., by causing metaphorical injuries to them. Perhaps that word can be seen as more neutral, then?

I can see how people can easily get confused until they practice using alternate ways of referring to people. The subtle nuances of finding neutral ways to refer to people dealing with various challenges can take some time to sink in. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to guide you (but don’t read too many, because they can start to conflict). I’m just glad to see there seems to be at least some effort made in new media and places like that.

I want my talking heads to leave the name calling to the people they interview. Image by @amauritorezan via Twenty20.

Who’s most likely to use these terms?

Another understanding I’ve reached is that it’s no wonder people use these disability kinds of terms to put others down; as a whole, people are still pretty ignorant about actual facts about disabilities of all kinds. I found an interesting article from the UK about the language of 14-year-olds for putting others down about disabilities.

The authors found five themes in the data.

  1. Popular derogatory terms (nuts, psycho, crazy, loony)
  2. Negative emotional states (disturbed, depressed)
  3. Confusion between types of disability (disabled, spastic, dumb)
  4. Actual psychiatric diagnoses (depression, schizophrenia)
  5. Terms related to violence (scary) (I admit, I didn’t see this as violent)

There are lots of lists of words in the article, but the authors concluded that, for the most part, the young people didn’t really know what the words meant and were just using words for emphasis, especially the popular derogatory terms. They were surprised that actual diagnoses weren’t used much, and concerned that the violence words appeared as much as they did (though they were the least used).

We’re just kids, mimicking other kids. Cut us some slack. Or educate us! Image by @lelia_milaya via Twenty20.

The article cited above inspires me to cut folks some slack. How many people know where the words “loony” or “spaz” come from? I sure didn’t until I was a lot older than a teen. Many really hurtful utterances probably come from folks just picking a word they’ve heard others use that sounds sufficiently negative to emphasize a point.

I come to the conclusion, based on that emotional maturity stuff I talked about yesterday, that people who are still muddling along at the adolescent stage of emotional maturity, at least with respect to labeling others, are more likely to engage in using disability terms to insult or put people (and ideas) down.

Now I’m back to name calling

On the other hand, name calling, in general is one of my least-favorite human proclivities. It’s something I worked with my children to eliminate (fairly successfully, for the most part, though we did love the word doofus for gently chiding ourselves for making simple errors). People just LOVE labels. And so many people define themselves by the labels others (and they, themselves) assign to them. That’s why I don’t like name-calling and that type of put-downs. They can mess a person up.

Labeling Exercise

So, here’s something to think about. How many labels have people put on you, or you have put on yourself, throughout your life? I’m thinking both positive and negative, by the way. Here’s a list for me, with my internal labels in italics. (note that some of the items in the left column I don’t personally find negative, like sensitivity and agnostic, and some of my positives are negatives for others.)

NegativePositive
FatSmart
UglyTalented
TalkativeGood listener
StupidPatient
UnlikeableHard worker
UnfriendlyEmpathetic
SensitiveGenerous
UnpopularKind
Goody-two shoesBrave
HeathenFeminist
AgnosticSpiritually open
Femi-NaziLiberal
LibtardWell read
Intellectual snobAltruistic
HystericalCentered
NervousOpen minded
Self centered
Look, I made the columns kind of equal, though it was easier to think of the items on the left

As I look at my own list, I can see that some of the labels that have been applied to me sunk in and were very difficult to shake off. Others didn’t bother me at all. I’ll have to ponder why that’s so, but as a first stab (aha, a war metaphor), I’ll guess that labels that point to my insecurities (fat, unlikeable) stuck longer than put-downs that I’m actually proud of (feminist, agnostic).

So, I challenge you to see if you can come up with a list of the things people label you (or you label yourself with). Are they accurate? Have you glommed onto inaccurate ones and believed them at some point in your life? Have you broken away from some labels?

I’ll share more about this later, I guess.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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