Is it wrong to jokily call someone 'mental'?

  • 26 September 2013
Laughing and pointing at a colleague - posed photo

Asda has apologised for selling a "mental patient fancy dress costume" but is the term mental - regularly used in a jokey fashion - offensive, asks Damon Rose of BBC Ouch.

"The crowd went mental", "don't mind me, I'm just mental", "she looks mental in that hat".

We regularly hear phrases like these and many of us think nothing of it. It's often just a way of acknowledging something is a bit silly. But if you are someone with mental illness, does it grate?

Recent campaigns like Time to Change have tried to reduce the stigma around mental health and say that it's fine for us all to talk about how we feel. But are we still too casual with our use of the word mental?

"I'd rather people didn't use the word like that but I don't think it's meant in a hostile way," says Charlotte Walker, who has bipolar disorder and blogs as Purple Persuasion.

"I get more upset when people misuse clinical terms, like using 'psychotic' to mean either insanely obsessive or insanely violent."

There is a rich vocabulary of terms that could be seen as unhelpful or disrespectful. Some are perhaps so far below the radar that they might surprise you.

"I don't really like it when people say work was 'manic'," says Walker, "because being manic was one of the worst things that ever happened to me."

She notes that there is humour in the community with these borderline words, and says people quickly refer to themselves as mental or "a mental" so they don't have to call themselves a "patient" or a "service-user".

The R-word, and the S-word (retard and spastic) have, over the years, been targeted.

Blind comedian Chris McCausland says it depends how you use them.

"If you say 'you're mental', 'you're off your head' - it's fine if they're just being a bit crazy.

"Like if you say the ref is blind, he should've seen the ball, There's nothing wrong with that but if you go up to a mentally ill person and call them mental then that's mean-spirited."

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