“Basket case” is kind of a catchy phrase — fun to say, rolls off the tongue nicely. The movie “Breakfast Club” referred to the quirky, shy girl as the basket case, a character I’ve identified with since high school for her rumpled style and introversion.
While I’m a progressive who’s not especially fond of political correctness and clickbait articles titled “10 Things to Never Say to Another Human Being,” I am an advocate for the precision of language. We should be aware of the nuances and implicit bias in the words we use.
One of our current presidential candidates referred to his rival Ted Cruz as “having a mental health crisis.” He identified Bernie Sanders as “crazy” and called radio host Glenn Beck “a mental basket case.”(2)
Here we have an example of a potential world leader stigmatizing mental illness, using accusations to dismiss a person’s stability or capability. Stigmatizing mental illness is not only ill-informed, it’s dangerous.
“People who feel ashamed of their condition, or who believe that it implies a personal failing on their part, are much less likely to seek treatment or social or familial support,” wrote journalist Jesse Singal in her nymag.com blog Science of Us.(3)
Think about that the next time you use the words “lunatic” or “crazy” to describe someone. Stigmatizing mental illness prevents people, sometimes suicidal people, from seeking help.
In 2001, it was estimated that 30 percent of Americans had a mental illness, and an early U.S. survey revealed that less than one-third of those with mental illness sought help.(4)
Stigma is deadly. To imply that mental illness is a barrier to a successful career in one’s field is misguided bigotry.
Mental Illness and Employability
Famous people with mental illness belie the assumption that mental illness is a handicap:
- John Nash, Nobel Prize winner in mathematics
- Leo Tolstoy, author
- Ben Stiller, comedian and actor
- J.K. Rowling, author(6)
Oh, and perhaps you’ve heard of this fellow:
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States(5)