Sanism is Driving Me Irritated

Featured Image: Photos by Milad Fakurian and Thiébaud Faix on Unsplash. Edited in Affinity Designer and Image Glitch Tool. Hacked font by David Libeau.


Content Warning: The post and links within all contain ableist—and especially sanist—language.

4 for Now

Language evolves, and many of us with it, as we stop using words that hurt people. However, most linguistic ableism still flies under the collective radar, including sanism (discrimination against mental disabilities and illnesses). It’s everywhere. It drives me … frustrated.

The Effects of Sanism

Sanism feels bad. Metaphors for all disabilities, more often than not, are used pejoratively. There are exceptions, but when the society you live in uses your symptoms or disorder as an adjective for bad things, it equates that word with “bad.” So you think you’re bad, or there’s something wrong with you, and if it knew the truth about your mental illness or disability, society would hate you. (When I say “you,” I mean me, but I’m not alone.)

When mentally ill or disabled folks are afraid to admit it, they’re less likely to seek treatment. And if we’re afraid to talk about our mental health, then the whole discourse around mental health is sanism, which just increases the stigma around these conditions.

Not to mention, sanist language is based on stereotypes. So it creates false impressions of people folks are trying to distance (or “other”) themselves from. It’s also an oversimplification, often reducing folks with mental conditions down to a single symptom. And when we use actual disabilities or illnesses as metaphors, it strips the real meaning from the word, giving it the new (usually less specific) meaning of the metaphor and leaving the person with the condition no word to describe what they’re experiencing.

And, of course, the kids in our lives hear us speak this way, think it’s okay, and grow up to be sanist.

How to Use Less Sanism Without Violating Anyone’s Free Speech

I’m not saying you have to revamp your entire vocabulary at once, or at all. Your words are your choice. But if you’d like to be more respectful to folks who struggle with mental illness or disability, take it in stages:

  1. Notice how often you use words like crazy, insane, nuts, etc. Just notice.
  2. Replace those words with a less harmful catch-all. I use wild. When your gut reaction to something is “This is crazy!” say “This is wild!”
  3. Consider what you really mean when you say “This is wild!” Was it something you weren’t expecting? Someone acting out of character? An intense experience? Try these instead:
  • Unexpected, sudden, unanticipated, unforeseen, abrupt
  • Out of character, unbecoming, unfitting, inconsistent, uncharacteristic
  • Intense, excruciating, fierce, profound, violent
  • Irrational, impulsive, illogical, unreasonable, foolish
  • Uncomfortable, harsh, distressing, disturbing, awkward
  • Absurd, bizarre, unreal, inconceivable, surreal
  • Excessive, extreme, inordinate, lavish, limitless

No single person is the authority on language use for an entire group, so while I say using sanism is offensive, there are other mentally disabled or ill folks who say it’s fine. Some have even reclaimed the words to describe themselves. What works for one of us won’t work for all of us.

We all make mistakes sometimes. But a little thought and respect go a long way.


4 for Later

  1. Here’s a list of more ableist words (and why they’re ableist) and things you could say instead, from AustisticHoya.
  2. Time to Change has some tips on challenging stigmas.
  3. Check out or Mental Health America to find ways to support mental health (or google “mental health support + [your country]” if you’re not in the US).
  4. If you’re feeling uncharacteristic, impulsive, or bizarre, MHA has some self-help tools, and NAMI has support for individuals, caregivers, and frontline professionals.

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