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Let’s take the sting out of crazy

November 13, 2012

Mary Magalotti, principal psychologist at Life Resolutions, says we need to rethink what we mean by ‘crazy’.

You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps: a bumper-sticker slogan as old as the hills.

Yes, the intention is to be humourous, but the humour is double-edged.  In the first place, it’s designed to take the edge off in a workplace environment and acknowledge that we all have our quirks, foibles and life issues – we’re all a bit “crazy” in the grand colloquial sense.

But the stigma attached to the word “crazy” makes it as damaging as much as it is levelling.  “We all go a little mad sometimes,” said Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, one of the most infamous murderers in cinema history.

Whether meant in jest or not, “crazy” conjures up a picture of mental illness for many of us, even if we’re not sure what mental illness actually is.  We know that it’s bad, and the signals we receive from our culture make many of us feel that there’s something intrinsically wrong with us as a result.

This discourages people from seeking help, particularly from a professional like a psychologist, as that would only reinforce the prejudice.

This affects far more than the 1 in 5 Australians who are diagnosed with a clinical mental illness each year, it affects anyone who would like some advice or guidance over a life issue: be it their career, their relationship, or even their sporting performance.

Psychologists often struggle to be seen as more than the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It’s a struggle common to many health professionals: we’ll avoid seeing the dentist regularly to keep our teeth in good shape, leaving it until our favourite chocolates have eaten their way through to the nerve.

That’s not to say that mental illness is not a significant issue for Australia.  Over a million people will be affected by depression this year.  One in twenty people will suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, ranging from panic attacks to post-traumatic stress following a distressing life event such as sexual abuse, a car accident, living or working in a war zone.

However, National Psychology Week is an opportunity for practitioners to put a human face to the field of psychology, to step out from behind the stereotype of a man in a chair with a clipboard, peering over his horn-rimmed glasses at you with a judgmental cock of the eyebrow.

Given that the origin of the word “psychology” is “study of the soul”, it’s little wonder that for decades it has carried very heavy connotations, so a week-long promotional opportunity for psychologists is not enough by itself to improve the wellbeing of Australians.  After all, many of us already know people in jobs we would consider bizarre or unusual.

As charming as the iconic Melbourne plumber Kenny Smyth is from the film of the same name, there’s few of us who’d relish the opportunity to spend a day on the job with him installing portaloos.

The answer lies in a much bigger conversation about ourselves: removing the sting from the tail of “crazy”.

More open and meaningful discussions about what matters in our lives, what we fear and what we love, and recognising when we need assistance from a professional to find solutions that will make our lives better.

These might be solutions in your relationships, an essential ingredient to a happy life.  While they provide us with support, love, comfort and friendship, relationships with partners, family or friends can sometimes become distressing and frustrating. You may find yourself with issues in a relationship that you are unable to confront.  This is not a mental dysfunction, it’s simply a part of everyday life.

So is getting married, becoming a parent, dealing with transitions to new schools or jobs, making changes after a separation or divorce, adjusting to a different lifestyle after children leave home, or planning the next phase of life after retirement. All of these situations are normal in our lives and we can have mixed reactions of joy, stress, uncertainty and grief.  Just because a wound is temporary doesn’t mean we leave it unbandaged.

Of course there will be those who require more intensive care than others when it comes to mental health issues, just as there are those who require the same when it comes to chronic physical conditions.

But if we see issues of mental health and wellbeing as part of the human experience, then “crazy” starts to lose its power as a term of exclusion – and we will all be a step closer to learning how to think well and be well throughout our daily lives, not just during the tough times.

Mary Magalotti is the Melbourne-based founder, director and principal psychologist of Life Resolutions, Australia’s largest network of private psychology practices.  She is a committee member of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Psychological Society, and holds a position on their professional practice advisory group.

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