I try to always make people aware that they shouldn’t use words like “psycho” and they often ask me why it’s wrong. They’re just words, how much harm can they do? They don’t mean them in a way that’s offensive to those who have mental health conditions. “Sticks and stones”, and all that.
The truth is that yes, they’re just words, but words can do a lot of harm that goes further than individuals being offended (although that is totally valid). Misconceptions and misuse of terms like “psycho” are some of the biggest contributors to stigma, which leads to people being denied jobs, education, healthcare, housing and causes social problems that can have a massive impact on someone’s quality of life. According to Time to Change, over a third of the UK population think that people who have mental health issues are dangerous. In reality, very few of us are – we’re much more likely to be victims of crime or to be more of a danger to ourselves than others. Not only are these stereotypes damaging, they’re not even true.
So how do little words have such a big impact? Well, to use “psycho” as an example: it’s an insult that means “psychotic”. For a start, the fact that it’s used as an insult at all implies that psychosis is something so negative that it can be used as a term to degrade someone, which it isn’t. Not only that but psychosis involves hallucinations and delusions and very rarely makes someone dangerous; whilst the insult is used to refer to people who are angry, violent, manipulative, abusive, etc. None of those things have anything to do with psychosis, and every time you call a serial killer or someone’s abusive boyfriend a “psycho”, you’re stressing the idea that psychosis is those things – when it isn’t at all – to everyone who hears it. This is the misconception that leads to the stigma, that leads to people being refused basic rights, pushed out of society as freaks when they’re less dangerous than someone who’s drunk.
“Psycho” is just one example – the same goes for any degrading word/insult related to mental health, including “schizo”, “loony bin” and using things like OCD, personality disorders and even mental illness in general to describe someone’s actions, or as euphemisms for “crazy”. This is a great article on why it’s wrong to throw OCD around incorrectly.
I don’t blame people for not understanding the terms properly when they’re used so casually, but I hope that a few of the people reading this might take a moment to find a different word next time. Experiencing a mental health issue can be debilitating and depressing without the stigma – but you can make it a bit easier for those who do by helping to discourage that.