Are Slang Terms Describing Mental Illness Always Offensive?

Recently, while talking to a friend, I called myself a “whack job.” It isn’t uncommon for me to use a variety of colorful terms to describe my mental illness or living with bipolar disorder in general. But, on this occasion, he stopped me and said, “Wait, isn’t that term offensive?”

You might think that I’d immediately answer, “Yes.” After all, I do write a blog titled “Don’t Call Me Crazy.” So, surely, I acknowledge that all slang having anything to do with mental illness is immediately offensive. Right?

Language, much like people, is a tricky thing. There is no clear indicator in a single word between being offensive and not. Words stand alone. They have meanings, naturally, but they don’t have malice in and of themselves. There are no inherently bad words or good words; there are just words, neutral and meaningless. . .

. . .until you add context. Context is a sneaky thing.

Context is the difference between being cutely told to shut up because you embarrassed your significant other in public by exclaiming to all around that you loved them and being told to shut up because you’re hated and disrespected.

The words are the same; the context is different.

Mental Illness and Words Like “Whack Job”

In reality, by the strictest definition of the term, I am a whack job, I suppose. I live with bipolar disorder, which is a mental illness, which means I’m crazy – in a manner of speaking. But the offensive part isn’t in the words. It isn’t even in the meaning of the words. It is in the context.

Take this sentence as an example: “Even though you have an impeccable work history and have demonstrated a high level of competency toward completing your projects, we have decided to remove you from your position because you are a person living with mental illness.”

The description of my condition wasn’t offensive in the slightest. The offensive part was the misplaced limitations, the belief that I wasn’t competent, capable, successful, and qualified. The context that someone with a mental illness couldn’t thrive, compete, or succeed and the societal narrative that the mentally ill are less than everyone else being played out right before my eyes is what I, and others, find offensive.

In that context, “whack job” doesn’t sound so bad.

(Extra Credit ListeningPodcast: Does Person-First Language Reduce Mental Illness Stigma?)

Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.