On Using Words like “Insane” and “Crazy”

Sunday Content #36: October 30, 2016

Sometimes it’s days but most of the time it’s hours, minutes, and again I hear it. I hear it in conversation, on the radio, and on Twitter.

I read it in headlines:

What does this even mean

(Can you see where I’m going with this?)


That this kind of language bothers me probably isn’t very surprising to you. (I’ve written about why here before.)

Sometimes it gets to me. Sometimes I tweet.

Mostly, though, I try to ignore. I realize that a lot of people don’t know, still, that this language is problematic. It’s offensive. It’s mean. If you spend time reading about mental health, about the history of how our society treats people with psychiatric disabilities — and about the present — you’ll realize just how mean this is. But even if you’ve never thought or read about this topic, if psychiatric illness hasn’t touched your life at all, I bet you still know, deep down, that our country is failing people who are actually ‘insane’. Who are actually ‘crazy’.

Here’s another kind of headline I see a lot in America in 2016. Maybe you see them too:

If you read one piece today, I hope you make it this Andrew Solomon op-ed. It opens with a description of a now-scrapped theme park attraction:

“5150”, Solomon notes for those who need explanation, is the California involuntary commitment code. It means the person being alerted to authorities is known or suspected to have a mental illness and is in distress. A danger to herself or others. The police who killed Alfred Olango were responding to a 5150. (As were the police who shot Teresa Sheehan.)

This is the paragraph from Solomon’s piece that gets at the heart of all this, about what’s wrong with using words like “insane” and like “crazy” to mean various negative things. Or when we borrow psychiatric imagery for our horror shows.

This is about Halloween and it isn’t, similar to how condemnations of racist costumes are about Halloween and they aren’t. How we talk (or what we find scary) belies the attitudes we have about groups of people. Those attitudes may be ignorant, but they are neutral.

I went down to my lobby yesterday and there were some decorations up. Off to the side, by the leasing office, somebody had lined up some pumpkins. I heard a doorman explain there were ballots and you can vote on the winner. I expect I’ll see the result in the elevator next month.

Aside the jack o’ lantern competition was also a pumpkin-headed figure—a fairly elaborate decoration, all things considered. It was human-sized, and it was stuffed, maybe with straw. It wore white clothes and it was strapped to a big wooden board.

It was wearing, I realized, a straight jacket.

I do not know if others in the building, which is crowded with people of all ages, races, nationalities, even noticed this decoration as they passed by, on their way in and out. I wonder if anyone else also cared. If they did, I wonder if, like me, they’re probably not going to say anything to the management, to go through the trouble of explaining to them why, exactly, this is problematic. It’s offensive. It’s mean.

If you read another thing this morning, I hope you’ll make it this essay, by the late Deborah Danner, about what it was like to live with schizophrenia. “We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead,” she wrote. She called for better training, citing the “Gompers incident” specifically. By this, she likely was referring to a relatively well-known story from decades ago, when the NYPD shot and killed a 67-year-old mentally ill Bronx woman in her home. As some media have noted, Deborah Danner was 66 when she was shot and killed by the NYPD in her Bronx home.

Her essay ended: “I smile rarely, but I am surviving.”

Watch John Oliver’s segment on opioid addiction:

Listen to this episode of Another Round, where Tracy interviews Dr. Carl Hart. This conversation was unlike any I’d ever heard on the topic of drug and drug use.

On the occasion of the death of Vine (RIP) read (or re-read) this Doreen St. Félix piece.

The best thing I read this week was Wesley Morris’ essay on culture and black male sexuality.


This is perfect

Read this poem by Liz Morgan. Read this comic about the fall of Dilbert. Donate supplies to the Sacred Stone Camp.


p.s. Hey why don’t you sign up to receive an email notification whenever I publish a new Sunday Content. How about that.

Author of A KIND OF MIRRACULAS PARADISE (Scribner, 18) | Host of podcast MAD CHAT (www.madchatshow.com) | www.hellosandyallen.com | they/them

Author of A KIND OF MIRRACULAS PARADISE (Scribner, 18) | Host of podcast MAD CHAT (www.madchatshow.com) | www.hellosandyallen.com | they/them