Yesterday’s post talked about the first case of the Supreme Court’s new term, which addressed how mental illness is treated when it comes to criminal defense. While talking about this case in an online discussion group for lawyers, one individual was somewhat dismissive of the defendant in this case, saying, “the insanity defense is for people who are batshit crazy, not people with run of the mill mental illnesses.” I had some objections.
Treating mental illness better in law and in policy starts with talking about mental illness better, which starts with using the right terms. Phrases like, ‘batshit crazy’ only fuel a horrible stigma for people with severe mental illness. Nor is it even accurate.
When one does a quick google search, most of the results that pop up suggest that it comes from the phrase ‘bats in the belfry,’ which isn’t much better. Essentially, old churches had bell towers known as a belfry. If the belfry was active, bats wouldn’t roost in it because bats are sensitive to noise. However, an inactive belfry, one that had nothing going on, might have bats roosting in it. Thus, ‘bats in the belfry’ was once used to describe mental illness because people thought there was nothing up there. ‘Batshit crazy’ came out of this, suggesting that the bats had been up there so long that it was now nothing but batshit. Which is bullshit.
Individuals with mental illness are incredibly complex and wonderful people, struggling with demons they did not choose to have accompany them on their journey. Terms like the ones above dismiss that fact and dismiss those people, instead fueling a horrible stigma, a stigma that needs to end.
Nor is the subsequent phrase “run of the mill mental illness” better. Yes, it does not have a negative connotation, but nevertheless it groups all mental illness together, which ignores the deeply personalized struggle of a disease that impacts everyone differently. I have met many people who struggle with mental illness through my advocacy work, and none of them were “run of the mill.” Rather they were unique individuals with unique battles. Together we are not alone, but our diseases certainly are not all the same. Nor would you refer to any other illness that way. After all, you wouldn’t say, “him, oh, he just has run of the mill cancer.” Although not negative, it is equally insulting.
I called the attorney on this discussion board out and I would hope other mental health advocates would do the same. No one is served by using such objectionable language.