On Mental Illness: Incorrect Labeling

By Jack Bragen
Monday February 07, 2011 - 03:30:00 PM

A few years ago, I was offended when I was referred to as "a psychotic" on someone's website. The perpetrator was attempting to discredit me and my defense of the Berkeley Daily Planet. In the process of this attempt at mudslinging, the authors of this website showed their true bigotry and hypocrisy. 

A long time ago, I wrote a paper for a magazine in which I criticized some psychotherapists as having techniques that are damaging to their clientele. It was called; "The Damaging Effects of Some Psychotherapy." A man read this paper whose son is a professional therapist, and was offended by what I said. My response, at that time was that I was offering mere words, and as such, should not be accused of doing damage. The man became livid and said; "Words are weapons." This statement caused me to think. 

Words are weapons. This is because our society gives massive weight to our words. Our system of laws is made of words. It is said; "a man is as good as his word." Mere words are strong enough items to start fights, and even, to start wars. Hitler came to power through his words. Our Presidents in the US become elected based largely upon which one is better at speech. The Uni-bomber’s writings were apparently used as evidence in his conviction. In the public school system, some of the harassment includes name-calling. If they didn’t like you, you were called a “fag.” If someone was called names like this a few too many times, they became either antisocial, suicidal or homicidal, or perhaps they lived on with permanent emotional scars. 

In Transcendental Meditation, which was popular in the 1970’s, they gave people a Mantra, a phrase to repeat to oneself that could bring enlightenment. It is a very powerful tool. 

Words have power. 

When you label a person, “a schizophrenic,” or “a bipolar” what effect do those words have on someone? If the label is given to a person enough times, and if it is reinforced by other talk given to that person, how then, can they become anything else? A massive structure has been created; it is almost like a jailhouse made of words. The individual has been given no way out. All of the other people in that person’s life have mutually agreed to call that person “crazy” or “a sick person” and so that person has been left without an exit path. 

A man who has read this column, Harold Maio of Florida, also a writer and retired newsletter editor, wrote to me and agreed to have his name used. This is what he had to say: 

“To be one of us, one would have to be a legislator, a judge, professor, doctor. One would have to be a mail deliverer, a grocer, reporter. Name a profession, blue or white collar job, and you will see "us." Familiar shoes, mostly. 


“Retired from editing, and earlier from teaching German, husband, 38 years, a grown daughter, a grown son. Life in the suburbs, daily stints at the computer addressing language still. Caring for a just today 94 year old mother-in-law with Alzheimer's. She remains a delight to be with, despite her absence of memory, both long and short term. 

“To be one of "the" mentally ill, however, you would have to agree to be caricature, that is what the phrase suggests, and why it has been so popular in its many forms, "the" Jews, "the" Blacks, every time period and every geography has had its own. 

“All hollowly entertain, not inform.” 

Many persons with mental illness resent that label that has been thrust upon them without their consent. For one thing, such a label can irreparably alter the architecture of the person’s existence. In the future, I will attempt to use a minimum and the least harmful labels when referring to persons with mental illness, such as, “persons with mental illness,” “people,” “people who see a psychiatrist,” or “one,” (pronoun usage).