On a movie poster featuring a smiling Rajkummar Rao inflicting self-harm with a cigarette, I noticed a flashy pink tagline that read, “Mental Hai Kya”. Various media outlets commented that the poster for the Rajkumar-Kangana starrer scream “Insanity Overloaded,” “Crazy is the new normal,” and prove that “sanity is overrated.” This is sadly not the first time that mainstream media and film copy have been insensitive in their messages. Films, television shows, and advertisements regularly sensationalise and misrepresent mental illness by making callous comments passed off as jokes, catchy slogans, and tag-lines.
We’ve become so accustomed to this insensitive culture that we don’t realise how debilitating media narratives are in general, from Baadshah’s ‘Main toh hu pagal’ to Drake’s dig at Kid Cudi in the song ‘Two Birds, One Stone.’ Through the media we consume, we develop preconceived – usually diluted – notions of what it means to live with a mental illness.
We see this in the results of an alarming study by the Live Laugh Love Foundation that found that 47% of the respondents used the word ‘retard’ and 40% used ‘crazy, mad, stupid’ when they were asked to describe a person with mental illness. We are all guilty of throwing around such phrases and even actively choosing not to intervene when we hear them being said by others. Throughout history, Indian society has misused mental health-related terminology, using them instead as colloquialisms. I often wonder how society reached this point.
Research shows that the root of this conditioning could have possibly begun with the archaic Indian Lunacy Act of 1912, which stated that a person suffering from a mental illness should be referred to as a “lunatic,” a descriptor still in use. While Indian society has made some progress, like the decriminalisation of suicide in the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, the use of the word “committed” when describing death by suicide (which denotes wilfulness and criminal intent) is still widespread on mainstream media channels. These outdated practices have bred a culture of hyperbole that trivialises the experience of living with a mental illness.
When ‘retarded’ is used synonymously with ‘slow’ or when ‘depressed’ becomes an adjective for sad feelings, there is a deep disconnect between the word used and the meaning ascribed to it. This is not a problem unique to English. As a speaker of Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati, I’ve heard words like pagal khana (mental ‘asylum’), veda (crazy) and gaando (mad) being used with very negative connotations. These words are so ingrained in Indian languages that tackling stigma becomes a much harder task.
“The understanding about mental health at the moment is still so minute among people at large, including those who may actually be experiencing some amount of mental health issues themselves, that it’s not surprising that terms relating to them are used so loosely,” says Nikhil Taneja, a writer and a producer. “In fact, something like OCD and autism has often been used for comic relief in shows like Big Bang Theory where Sheldon is seen as a ‘quirky weirdo’ versus someone who is struggling with an illness. There’s just such a severe lack of awareness on these issues so these terms have no meaning beyond slang to everyone. I have been at both, the receiving and giving end of these terms when I was going through something, and when I was ignorant, that I believe we need to educate widely, but with a lot of empathy.”
Tara Sayyed*, a 26-year old writer who lives with Bipolar II Disorder and Social Anxiety tells me, “I’ve never personally felt offended by anyone’s use of words like ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. Though I do find it annoying when people say they’re ‘so OCD’ without real knowledge of an illness that can be debilitating for countless others. It’s a tricky terrain. Sensitisation is important but it needs to be a gradual effort. It’s going to take time to get heavy conditioning and linguistic habits to change – something people have ingrained over the years.” 23-year-old Pooja Krishnakumar, who lives with borderline personality disorder, adds, “OCD is very serious, so is dissociation, so is having bipolar. When a person randomly throws around words like ‘Oh dude, you’re so bipolar’ just because the person is having a mood swing, it sort of belittles the person’s experience and it is not fair to the person because it’s very difficult to deal with that in reality.”
I have grown to understand the need for sensitivity in a language only in recent years. I regretfully remember various occasions where I, too, have casually used terms like OCD when referring to my penchant for perfection and organisation. I now understand how that was reductive and an inaccurate conflation.
Careless language, like mine used to be, could prevent people who are genuinely suffering from seeking help. While some people may not find it offensive, we still need to take ownership of the words we use. The repercussions of not doing so can perpetuate stereotypes that thousands are labelled with. We have to critique the problematic use of mental illness as comic relief in pop culture, like the Rajkumar Rao poster previously mentioned.
I might still catch myself misusing the word ‘crazy’ but I am quick to apologise and correct myself. It is time we all develop a degree of self-awareness about how dehumanising our carelessness can be and the impact that it can have. The importance of language when it comes to breaking the stigma of mental illness needs to be more known and stressed upon. It will take time, but we need to start somewhere.
Representational illustration courtesy of Ashley Mackenzie.
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