Mental Illness And Mental Retardation Are Not The Same Thing

Recently I read an online article from XXL magazine entitled 25 Lyrics Referencing Mental Illness. The article was written in response to Hip Hop artist J. Cole issuing a public apology last week after he used the words retarded and autistic in one of his newly released songs.

J. Cole said in his apology letter that he regretted using those words and admitted that there is a recent trend of Hip Hop artist using offensive words and language and then feeling pressured to apologize. He admitted that part of him resents that because he views music like comedy and that it is supposed to “ruffle feathers at times” which to me means that his apology isn’t sincere and he knows nothing about the stigma, issues and plight of those with mental retardation and mental illness.

Besides those comments, what really bothered me was the title of the article, “25 Lyrics Referencing Mental Illness”, yet all 25 examples they gave mentioned the words “retarded” or “retard” in some way, which in itself is offense, but I was more offended that the person or persons that wrote this article didn’t take five minutes to do a Google search and learn that mental retardation and mental illness are not the same thing.

A person can be mentally retarded and not mentally ill, or mentally ill, but not mentally retarded OR both mentally ill and mentally retarded, but mental retardation and mental illness are no where near the same thing.

In short, the difference is that mental illness typically develops in an otherwise healthy person, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Some forms of mental illness may look like mental retardation, such as autism and other pervasive developmental disorders, but in those cases children usually start off developmentally normal and then regress or stop progressing mentally and/or physically.

Mental retardation, mostly called developmentally delayed today, on the other hand is usually a congenital defect where the mental, motor and other life skills of the person are somehow kept from fully developing. Mental retardation is usually confirmed by an IQ test, where mental illness is not. You can also develop mental retardation as the result of a traumatic brain injury and we will explore some of that in a later post.

Also, a major difference between mental retardation and mental illness is that, for the most part, mental illness can be treated and even cured through medication and therapy while mental retardation can’t.

As a licensed mental health counselor, I can put someone in involuntary hospitalization if they are acting out (harm to self, others, self-neglect) due to a mental illness, but not if it is due to mental retardation or a developmental disability. Legally there is a difference.

If you are going to write an article talking about the derogatory use of the words “retard” and “retarded” then entitle it “25 Lyrics That Reference Mental Retardation”.

It’s hard enough for people with a mental illness to find the courage to ask for help, but when they have to fear that people will start calling them “retarded”, it only makes finding the courage tougher.

Writing an article like this just confuses people, places stigma on people who already have enough stigma to deal with and doesn’t do anything to further the cause of making everyone aware of being sensitive in the way we treat and refer to our fellow humans.