As a woman who has received multiple psychiatric diagnoses over the years, explaining what goes on inside my brain has always been tricky. In an ideal world, I would be entirely transparent, not for the sake of loading my problems onto people, but with the intention of making it simpler to receive the accommodations I need. This isn’t normally the case, however. The uncomfortable conversation is often ignored, leaving me to re-explain and re-justify my needs every time the demand arises. Sometimes, I completely forget the conversation ever happened — that is, until I find myself in an argument, and that abominable phrase pops out of someone’s mouth: “Whatever, you’re just crazy.”
My experience with mental disability mimics that of many others. Beyond the ways many students are discriminated against on an institutional level, our diagnoses are also used to make us feel excluded or invalidated in the workplace, the classroom, and even on a Saturday night out at Pappy’s. Womanhood amplifies this effect — between the two identities, I’m not just labeled as impaired, but also “emotional” and “dramatic.” So for those of you who need a little coaching (and for the folks who can relate), here’s a brief lesson on how to talk to a woman with a mental disability.
Don’t boil arguments down to “she’s crazy”
Be more creative than using someone’s disability to dismiss their argument if you disagree. It’s an obvious cop-out, and downright dehumanizing. You’ll probably embarrass yourself a lot less if you can actually articulate your opinion instead of throwing a hissy fit, anyway.
Listen to what she’s saying
It’s a terrible feeling to know you’re not being listened to, but it unfortunately happens to some of us way too often once someone’s decided we’re “psycho.” It should seem like common sense, but try to actually listen to what a person with a mental disability is saying before you let your eyes glaze over. Trust me, we can tell.
Don’t “out” someone’s disability for them
Whether a person chooses to use their diagnosis as an identity marker is their decision, not yours. The reality is that all people have different abilities, and some people want to keep their diagnoses discreet. If a person recognizes their mental disability as a defining characteristic, use the “person with” form (e.g. “person with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic person”) or the terms they ask you to use.
If she seems to be in a crisis, ask what you can do to help
Maybe you aren’t the type to ignore or dismiss someone, and that’s great. But a lot of people don’t know how to actually accommodate a disability, and the answer is simple: just ask. Ignoring the signs that someone is struggling or assuming what accommodations someone needs can both make a situation worse. There isn’t a set formula for accommodating mental health, and what works for one person might be the absolute worst solution for another. Like seriously, reaching out is highly underrated.
But if she needs it, give her space
Sometimes people try so hard to be accommodating that they can become a nuisance. Checking in is important, but sometimes getting some space to ourselves is the only way to really deal with a trigger or episode. In simpler terms, no adult likes to be treated like a child. So listen to the social cues, and if someone asks you to leave them alone, do it (unless, obviously, they might do themselves harm).
We get it — you studied all night for this midterm and really wish you had extended time. That doesn’t mean it’s OK, however, to make folks feel guilty for taking the time they actually need. The same goes for needing to miss a meeting or take time off from a club. There should be no shame in taking care of yourself.
DON’T CALL HER CRAZY
Disability is a social construct, anyway, and the boundary we’ve created between sane and insane wouldn’t even make sense if it weren’t for the ways it’s culturally perpetuated. It’s also a historically sexist and ableist word. If that’s too much sociology jargon for you, let’s make it really simple: Don’t ever call a person with a mental disability crazy. Full stop. Period. *drops mic*
For information about UC Berkeley’s disability services and programs, visit the Disabled Students’ Program website.
Contact Veronica Irwin at [email protected].