The C-Word

Why “crazy” is not okay

by Lauren Antonoff, staff writer; photos by Lela Wulsin, staff artist


I have never been a fan of polemics, diatribes or other types of eloquent and well-punctuated tantrums. However, there comes a time when the straw breaks the camel’s back. For me, that straw was a word. Just one word.

There have been movements launched against the “B word,” the “N word” and many other offensive labels, but we seem to have neglected one important term. This word is not gendered or racially charged. It’s a normal, harmless word when used to explain a party last night or a bad case of bed head, but it’s a demeaning, harmful word when used to describe a person suffering from mental health problems. The word is “crazy,” and it’s amazing how this word affects our concept of mental health.

Let me tell a story in order to explain my adverse reaction to the “C word.” Once upon a time, I fell into a deep depression. Fully saturated in isolation and unhappiness, my then-boyfriend told me I was being “the Mayor of Crazytown.” At the time, I didn’t think twice about it. Yeah, sure, I was being a little crazy, wasn’t I? I was just being silly, and irrational, and I was overreacting, and things could really be worse, and I was just not trying hard enough to be happy, and … wait, what?!

Looking back, I want to scream at myself for accepting that nomenclature. By accepting “craziness,” I was invalidating my own illness and giving in to the shame of feeling unwell, the shame of being anxious, of being depressed. Oh, no, not depressed. No one ever wants to say, hey, I’m depressed. It has such bad connotations, made clear by the wide range of ignorant reactions, from poorly concealed cringes to pep talks about how it’s all a problem of attitude. Um no, it’s actually a chemical imbalance in my brain, thankyouverymuch. It’s the perpetual feeling of being alone in a crowded room, the feeling of hiding a shameful batch of emotions that seem unacceptable.

People cry out for help every day and we look away in the same uneasy way that we pretend not to see the homeless. We are all familiar with Facebook users who post self-loathing or deeply sad statuses, but we don’t comment. People around us look blatantly agonized, exhausted and unhappy. We don’t check in with them; we don’t reach out. People we know get drunk or high to excess. We laugh, shrug it off and say “it’s just college.” People struggle to bring up their mental illnesses or ask for help. We aren’t used to talking about these things, and that’s why they persist. Until the dialogue is opened up, the shame and isolation will not lift. We are raised to understand and address physical pain and illness, but not mental pain and illness. We rush to help those with cancer, gum disease, broken bones or torn ligaments. But those with mental health issues? All of a sudden the urgency begins to dwindle.

It turns out that “crazy” isn’t a medical diagnosis, and it isn’t a term that should be thrown around to disregard the unwell. Crazy is nothing other than a way to invalidate someone’s legitimate illness. Crazy is the way we perpetuate the stigma of mental health. This may come off as a trivial linguistic argument, but if we can understand how “crazy” as an idea inhibits progress in treating the mentally ill, we can move forward with less stigma in our way.

Over one-fourth of the American population have been diagnosed with either a mood or an anxiety disorder. If this were any other type of illness, it would be regarded as an epidemic or a plague. But since it is neither virus nor bacteria, it festers in the depths of our culture. Here at Colorado College, 26 percent of students seek mental health counseling (more than the 15 percent average for college students nationwide). Antidepressants are the second most prescribed drugs in America. Looking at these overwhelming figures, it is apparent that confronting mental illness is one of the most pressing, albeit least discussed, social and medical issues of our time.

In ancient civilizations, mental illness was seen as the result of supernatural activity, such as possession or punishment from higher beings. Sometime between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., Hippocrates argued that mental illness was caused by brain pathology, though this idea was not widely accepted until recent decades. For centuries, the mentally unwell were confined, tortured, abandoned, experimented upon and disgraced. From primitive skull drilling to shackling and incarceration, many inhumane and ineffective practices have defined treatment of the mentally ill.

In the mid 1800s, Dorothea Dix instigated a wave of reform by improving living conditions in mental institutions. Shortly after Dix’s push for more sanitary and humane facilities, Sigmund Freud developed the method of psychoanalysis and moved the field toward deinstitutionalization. Since Freud’s time, various forms of psychotherapy have gained prevalence and are still practiced today.

In addition to psychoanalysis, psychopharmacology is a popular form of modern treatment. Drug classes surfaced in the early 20th century, and now medications such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) and other types of anti-anxiety and antidepressant chemical supplements help alleviate symptoms of mental unrest. However, these drugs come with their own set of stigmatizations. Many people believe that drugs cure symptoms, not the illness itself, and that mental health can be regulated with attention to diet, exercise, routine and other holistic practices. Yet this disregards scientific evidence linking mental illness to brain chemistry. It is understood that these drugs suppress negative and uncontrollable emotions by boosting deficient chemicals in the brain, in the same way that insulin supplements boost insulin levels for diabetics. While the merits of holistic treatment are many and the problems of over prescription are abundant, it is undeniable that these drugs can raise a patient’s quality of life. This is the unbelievable sadness of the whole situation: There is stigma around talking about these issues, and if we seek help for them, there is stigma around the treatments.

With all these newfangled remedies for “craziness,” you’d think there would be an atrophying taboo surrounding mental illness. However, recent tragedies in the CC community indicate that we have a long way to go. In the past two months, two beloved students have attempted to take their lives. One student is now hospitalized indefinitely, and the other is no longer with us. These events devastated friends, family and the community at large. However, they have also given us the opportunity to speak out about mental health awareness and reach the critical mass for change. Now more than ever is the time to learn how to talk about these problems and treat them with empathy. Maybe the cure is medical. Maybe the cure is societal. But if we do not open a dialogue and focus on the small everyday kindnesses we can provide one another, we may never know. Sure, that’s sappy and indefinite, but hopefully it gets the ball rolling.