“Mom, did I tell you about that crazy girl in my class?”
“Did you see that boy? I just stalked his Instagram account to see his photos.”
Crazy. Stalked. In today’s vernacular, those words are loosely tossed around to depict other people. My teens use the words at least a few times a week, casually describing others without a second thought. What is hard to get them to understand, is that using ‘crazy’ and ‘stalker’ as a descriptor, is kind of like using a racial slur—the difference being that instead of using it to insult people of other races, these words are used to describe people who may be suffering from mental illness.
Our family has been personally touched by mental illness. I first became aware of it when I heard that my cousin in her mid-thirties had moved back in with her parents after several troubled years. Having become distant from her, we were unsure what the reasons were and simply accepted the fact that she needed a safe space for a while. When Thanksgiving rolled around, we had our first family dinner together, and right away I noticed her wide eyes and blank gaze. Next, we noticed her muttering to herself at the table, sometimes talking louder, and eventually leaving the table with tears in her eyes. My young kids, ages 6 and 8 at the time, also looked wide-eyed, and asked me after dinner, ‘What is wrong with her?’ It was the beginning of her long road to recovery and managing a mental illness. My kids, as they got older, began to understand that she was ‘sick’, but still never really grasped what she was dealing with.
Partially it was because I didn’t really know how to talk to them about it. Unfortunately, in our family, it wasn’t really addressed, and we just continued on like normal around her.
As my kids grew into teenagers, I started becoming more aware of their word choices. Hearing them describing someone as crazy immediately made me feel empathy and anger. Especially, from personal experience, knowing that perhaps the person they were describing might be going through a difficult time. What is hard for kids to understand is that mental illness can be an invisible disease—and you truthfully never really know what is going on with someone and why they cry a lot or do odd things. When another teen is sending erratic texts or crying in class, it doesn’t mean she is crazy—though it could very well be a sign of an underlying issue.
Thankfully my cousin was able to find the right treatment and get her life on track, unlike many people who suffer. When my kids talk about other girls as ‘crazy’, I try to remind them that using the word can actually be hurtful and derogatory and am keen to note how my cousin went through a hard time. If someone is acting a little bit erratically, it is important to be the person that tries to understand why. Choosing empathy and taking the time to know someone before making judgment applies to mental illness just the same as it applies to someone’s skin colour or sexual preference. I was able to use our own family story to help them understand that mental illness can happen to anyone, and it isn’t a choice. And sometimes people get better and sometimes they do not.
It’s only been the last several years that we are more consciously aware of mental illness. I’m embarrassed to say that maybe I’ve been a little more old school—still stuck in feeling shame or weakness around mental illness. For me, talking about it was similar to talking to my kids about sex—a little uncomfortable. When I started noticing them using slang words that could be considered slurs towards mental illness, I knew that it was time for me to get with the program. Even the Royal Family has started a campaign to educate others about reducing the stigma of mental illness, and the British are known for having a stiff upper lip and shying away from touchy issues.
I know that my girls are smart and open, and simply need to be reminded that using the words ‘crazy’ and ‘stalker’ can be considered hurtful, even if their friends commonly use them. Kids are so much more accepting and adaptable today—and sometimes, it’s the adults who need to catch up.