I used to work for an organization that was composed of some of the most creative individuals you could ever hope to find. The down side was that, when we had a staff conference, trying to get them all where they were supposed to be was like trying to herd cats. When I lamented the inability of gathering this talented group, I was told by one of them, “That’s because we’re all ADD.”
I don’t discount for a minute the possibility that some of these imaginative multitaskers may in fact have had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but I truly doubt that it was a universal characteristic of the entire staff. I suspect that it is more likely that many of them – probably most – simply had other things to do that they deemed more important. But you’ll note the casual way in which people bandy about being ADD.
The same is true of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Insisting that you complete a task or straighten your desk before you go for the day doesn’t mean you have OCD. When people want to be a little neat or in some other way exacting, they don’t hesitate to say, “I’m a little OCD” but it’s not true. Try going downstairs to check that you’ve locked the back door and/or turned off the burners, half a dozen times, getting out of bed each time. That’s perhaps a better idea of what OCD is like.
The truth is that people don’t hesitate to make a joke out of mental health issues in a way that they never would when it comes to physical health issues. Imagine if a physically-healthy person turned down dessert saying “Gotta watch my diabetes, ha ha.” Or responded to “You’ve lost weight” with “Well, you know, I’m a little cancerous.” I’d like to think that no one would ever do this and, in the unlikely event that someone did, it would be met with “Hey, man. Not cool.” Yet we ignore things like “psycho,” “schizo,” “bipolar” and the ubiquitous “crazy.”
One of the most politically-correct people I know recently referred to someone online as a nut. I sent him a private message giving him a heads-up that this is a derogatory term for a person with mental health issues. It literally hadn’t occurred to him and this is a person with greater-than-average sensitivities in matters of race and gender. I imagine that this issue similarly hasn’t occurred to most people reading this. Collectively, we have a long way to go in this area.
A brief history of mental illness: In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, mental illness was attributed to evil forces and the standard treatment was exorcism. In Medieval times, people with mental illnesses were often locked in cellars or caged in order to hide them away from the world. It wasn’t until the 16th century that asylums were widely established but these were not places of treatment; they were essentially places where families could abandon members with mental illness. Until asylum reforms were instituted in the 19th century, “patients” were actually inmates in inhumane living conditions, often in literal chains. It is in this 16th-century context that the term “crazy” (literally “cracked”) was coined. It originally meant “diseased” and its intention was to dehumanize those suffering from mental illness, in order to justify the conditions they were expected to endure. While we may no longer interpret the word that way, it carries centuries of stigma.
When we misuse “crazy” and other words for mental illness, it is potentially hurtful to people struggling with mental health issues. Not only that, the stigma associated with acknowledging mental illness discourages people from seeking help. The number of people affected in these ways is not insignificant. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five US adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year; 1 in 25 experiences a serious mental illness, which is defined as one that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” That’s a lot of people potentially hurt by people trivializing their conditions or discouraged from seeking help for fear of social stigma!
For years in my capacity as an editor, I have enforced a moratorium on the word “awesome.” It’s overused to the point of meaninglessness. “I went to an awesome Shabbaton with some awesome people. The food was awesome and everyone had an awesome time.” We still know nothing about this Shabbaton other than it was attended by a person with a remarkably low threshold for awe. The same is true for the word “amazing” and, let’s face it, the word “crazy.” The word is used in so many capacities that it has ceased to have any real use in communication. Since it’s offensive, potentially harmful and essentially useless, let’s examine some alternatives:
|Last night’s episode of The Good Place was crazy.||Last night’s episode of The Good Place was unbelievable.|
|That rollercoaster is so crazy!||That rollercoaster is so thrilling!|
|I was cut off by a crazy driver.||I was cut off by a reckless driver.|
|The weather this week has been crazy.||The weather this week has been unpredictable.|
|My colleague had a crazy idea.||My colleague had an outlandish idea.|
|Your political positions are crazy!||Your political positions are untenable!|
Isn’t that better? Not only have we removed an offensive word from these sentences, we actually understand what they’re supposed to be communicating!
Some might see this as a case of political correctness gone mad (instead of “gone mad,” try “out of control”) but such is not the case. If we haven’t completely eradicated “the R-word,” we have successfully gotten to the point where few people use it and many people point out “Hey, man. Not cool.” We can do that for mental health issues, too.
This is going to take some doing. We have a lifetime of casual usage behind us, bolstered by centuries of people with mental illness being marginalized by society. I’ve recently started attempts to improve in this area but I have no doubts that you’ll catch me in the occasional lapse because, as we all know, old habits die hard. But this doesn’t have to be an immediate all-or-nothing proposition. We can all work on gradual improvement over time. As we go, we’ll improve communication while decreasing causing unnecessary pain and discouraging fewer people from seeking useful treatment.
- Regarding the question of whether or not ADD or ADHD is a mental health issue, it is technically classified as a “psychiatric disorder,” so yes, it is. As with physical health issues, mental health issues can range from mild to severe. Anxiety, for example, need not be debilitating to be a legitimate mental health issues.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.