When We Call Someone ‘Retarded’ Or ‘Depressed’, Do We Realize What We’re Saying?

Posted on October 20, 2015 in Health and Life, Mental Health, Taboos

By Kartik Maini:

Ajay had always considered himself oddly temperamental. For months, however, he had been noticing a strange phenomenon – he would experience bouts of boundless euphoria, as if everything within and beyond his reach was conquerable, followed by deep, acrid sorrow. Trapped in this vicious cycle, he talked to his mother – and was told, rather hysterically, that he was ‘not insane’, and that ‘no girl would want a mad husband’. Ajay didn’t get help, and reached a stage where he didn’t need it anymore. He committed suicide.

For representation only. Image source: WordPress
For representation only. Image source: WordPress

People and cases like Ajay’s abound frequently – almost ubiquitously, as the psychologists would have us believe. As ubiquitously as the stigma that comes pre-packaged with mental illness. In his seminal work, Madness and Civilisation: History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault argues, amongst other things, that madness as culturally conceived, is a construct. It is the culture, Foucault argues, that determines what is normal (and inversely, what is not), what is adaptive, what is sanity, and thence, what is ‘madness’. It is culture, also, that ascribes to ‘maladaptive’ behaviour the baggage of ‘madness’.

Without picking on a specific geographical slice, madness isn’t just cultural – madness is taboo. As a form of taboo, madness develops with other modicums of cultural conformity – that is to say, basically, that the construct of madness, as well as its suffused stigma, are but underpinnings to generate normative conformity to the society. Madness, then, is almost pestilential – its mention egregious, its exhibition worthy of social punishment. This becomes problematic when an individual is afflicted with mental illness – ranging from an anxiety disorder to something as socially outrageous as schizophrenia. The individual realises that something is wrong, and wants help – stuck, however, in his milieu, ‘help’ is a distant idea.

What shapes the individual’s concern, problematically, is the gamut of schemas associated with ‘madness’ – mental illness is associated with ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’, attempts are made to repress all anxiety-provoking cognitive mention, and help is avoided like a leper – for how would, as Ajay’s mother articulated, the society see a ‘mad person’? Who would, especially in the context of a marriage-focused, collectivistic society such as ours, marry a ‘mad’ person? Not to exclude, also, is the systematic trivialisation of mental illness – that begins as harmless mockery such as calling someone ‘retarded’, and punctuates to generally sorrowful people calling themselves ‘depressed’. These are, as most do not realise, terms of immense medical and etymological seriousness. In a cultural milieu of their often trivial overuse, much is culled from the veracity of the disorder.

Why is this worrisome? We are, without underplaying it, in a great time for the psychological sciences. It is believed, in fact, that the twenty first century belongs to these ‘young’ sciences – particularly psychology. Massive, magnificent strides have been made into the field, and a variety of therapy models are being developed for individuals of different sensibilities. The science, however, seems to be feeding into deaf ears – as cultural stigma keeps the afflicted away from what is now available, and more importantly, accessible.

As we look around, we also look forward. Organisations geared towards this regard seem to be mushrooming, and for the better. Steeped in the awareness that ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ are terms too culturally problematic to be retained, these call, as is the need of the hour, for treating mental illness with the ease rendered to physical illness. For the time being, one can only hope.

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