“Breaking Expectations” is staff writer Danielle Allsop’s first hand experience with living with mental illness.
In one of my classes last week (made up mostly of juniors and seniors), we were involved in a lengthy discussion about empathy. The professor asked, “What happens when you don’t have empathy?” to which one student replied, “You have a mental disorder,” then laughed.
I was flabbergasted. It took a good thirty minutes for me to calm down, to return to the lecture.
While I was trying to calm myself down, I began to make the connection of individuals using the word “retard” to mean “stupid” or “dumb.” I hear it all the time, “Dude, you’re so retarded!” While the utterance typically isn’t meant to call the recipient “mentally retarded,” the way in which the speaker used it was meant to hurt the recipient, thus creating the connection that mentally retarded individuals are “stupid” and “dumb.”
It may not seem like a big deal, but to people who have children, siblings, family members, or friends who are mentally retarded, it is. The stigma that is attached to the word “retard” is one that is intended to cause harm, to make the connection that the other person is incapable of being like them.
This is not to say I haven’t used “retard” in a hurtful context-I have. But I was ignorant enough to not think about the attached meaning of the word. It wasn’t pointed out to me that it was hurtful to others, that I was helping to spread the stigma associated with that word. I didn’t even think about the way I used it.
It was just a word to me, like “stupid.” But after someone telling me that using “retard” in that context was inappropriate, I made the conscious effort to change.
I’ll never know why the student associated having a mental illness with being incapable of feeling empathy. Did I judge him for saying that? Yes. But after setting my feelings aside to rationally think about his thought process, I came to the conclusion that maybe he has never been exposed to what mental illnesses really are, that all he has ever heard about them might have been negative, I was able to put myself in his shoes, and have empathy for why he said what he said.