Want to hear something really crazy? I’m about to give you a tip that might change the way you experience virtually every casual conversation: Listen for the word “crazy.” Most likely, you and the people you talk to are using it all the time without even noticing.
Here’s another tip: There are good reasons why you might want to stop using that word. In fact, I first noticed that “crazy” was ubiquitous when a friend told me she was trying not to use it anymore. “Crazy,” she said, perpetuates mental health stigma. After that, I started hearing the word constantly, in my own speech and others’. It’s even in the title of one of my favorite TV shows, the CW network’s cult-favorite musical-theater-inspired drama “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
Why is the word “crazy” such a bad thing? Shouldn’t we all be free to use whatever words we like? I sat down with an expert, Brenda Curtis, PhD, MsPH, an assistant professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Penn Medicine, to discuss language, the stigma around mental health, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — a show Curtis admits she hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch because the name, and specifically that word, turned her off. With the help of some musical accompaniment from the TV show’s theme music, along with Curtis’s expertise on the topics of language, stigma, and mental health, here’s a quick rundown to the answer to the question of why you should reconsider calling things “crazy.”
“Crazy” might be a sexist term.
Since it premiered in 2015, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has played with the use of the word “crazy” in its theme songs, which vary each year. The first season’s theme introduces the show’s premise: Rebecca Bunch, a high-powered attorney in New York, gives up her life and starts over in California in an irrationally obsessive bid to reunite with her first boyfriend. The song also includes a jaunty chorus of “She’s a crazy ex-girlfriend,” a lyric that Rebecca disputes, saying, “That’s a sexist term!”
Curtis, who has done research on language and stigma specifically as it pertains to addiction, thinks the claim of sexism might be true. Though she hasn’t done research on the gendered uses of the word “crazy,” she points out that there are gender-based stereotypes about women being irrational, hysterical, and disconnected from reality—all meanings that are associated with the word “crazy.”
Calling things “crazy” perpetuates stigma, and that can make it more difficult for people to seek treatment.
The fact that the word “crazy” draws on stereotypes, and specifically a stereotype that is stigmatized, is the crux of the problem with using that word.
Stigma, Curtis explains, is a situation that arises when two key ingredients are present: a negative stereotype about a group of people or condition, and actions people take to distance themselves from being associated with that group or condition. Stigma is a kind of social distancing that happens when we perceive a group as “other” and “not like us.”
“One of the common stereotypes around mental health and substance use disorders is the idea of a moral failing,” Curtis says. “A lot of people will think, ‘oh they're just sad, get over it,’ or ‘oh, if you don't want to use drugs, just stop, no one forced you to.’” She also notes that the ideas about mental illness perpetuated by words like “crazy” include the idea that people with mental illness are divorced from reality, irrational, or incapable of making decisions. These stereotypes and the sense of blame they place on a person with mental illness tend to cast people in a category of “others” that few people want to claim as their identity.
Time for our next musical interlude: In the second-season theme song of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s adoring chorus asks the viewer not to call her “crazy”—even though her behavior on the show has become exaggerated and erratic, including stalking. She doesn’t want to be connected to the word “crazy,” perhaps because of the stereotypes attached. Instead, she clings to a cover story (“just a girl in love”) that isn’t subject to social stigma.
“When you have a person who is having a hard time and needs to talk to someone and needs treatment, they're less likely to go to their physician or another person for help if they don't want that person to see them in a different light,” Curtis says. In this way, attaching stigma to mental health conditions—by holding stereotypes, and creating social distance as a result of those stereotypes—makes it more difficult for people to get help. “When stereotypes affect treatment, either initiation of treatment or treatment engagement, when it's isolating people, that's a problem,” she says.
“Crazy” is a catchall word that doesn’t mean just one thing.
Another problem with the word “crazy”? It doesn’t mean just one specific thing. The third-season theme song for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” personifies that concept to the point of near-parody, as Rebecca portrays four different characters that are all different versions of the concept of “crazy.” (During this season, Rebecca is coming to terms with having a mental illness, which she ultimately gets diagnosed, and gets into treatment.)
Like me, Curtis has started noticing how widely we use the word “crazy” in casual conversation—in all kinds of different contexts, for all kinds of different reasons. She equates it to the way her parents taught her not to use curse words in casual conversation; when you use a curse word as an adjective or noun in a sentence, it’s not just rude, it’s also a lazy way to avoid thinking of the more precise word you really mean.
People use the word “crazy” to mean silly, strange, or outlandish; they use the word as a modifier like “extremely” or “intensely”; they use it to mean irrational or unexplainable; and sometimes they use it to describe mental illness.
“Why can’t we use a different word?” Curtis asks. “When a person becomes aware of the connotations that ‘crazy’ has, can we just start using a different word? You're using it as a catchall. We should replace it with multiple words, not a different catchall.”
Lesson Learned: Use the words you mean, and use person-first language.
There are three keys to using language about mental illness, Curtis notes: Use the correct words to describe something (the name of a diagnostic category if it’s a mental illness, or a descriptive general word like “outlandish” otherwise, not just “crazy” for everything); acknowledge when stereotypes exist—and debunk them; and use language that acknowledges a person is separate from their illness.
In her own research on language and substance abuse, Curtis has found that people have negative associations with words including “addict” and “substance abuser.” But, she says, that doesn’t mean people should top talking about addictions or substance abuse or the people struggling with these conditions. “Use the word you mean, and use person-first language,” she says. That means “you don't want to define someone by their disorder. So you don’t describe someone as ‘an intravenous drug user’ but instead as ‘a person who injects drugs.’” Defining a behavior means the person can change that behavior and doesn’t necessarily have to connect themselves with negative stereotypes attached to an identity label.
Speaking of person-first, the theme song for the forthcoming final season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” in which the protagonist is in treatment for her mental health disorder, is all about the person. “Meet Rebecca” is the refrain, and the word “crazy” isn’t uttered at all.
Can you challenge yourself to stop using that word, too?