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.

8 thoughts on “Mental Illness And Mental Retardation Are Not The Same Thing

  1. This is a pet peeve of mine as well. People are trying to be insulting and make a person look bad but what happens is that THEY look bad using an archaic term meant to reference developmentally delayed. They are only showing their lack of intelligence. Developmentally delayed (retarded) people are the sweetest, most gentle people you could ever meet.

    1. I agree. I intially read the article thinking I could write a post about hip hop artist referencing mental illness, but I was so apalled that 100% of the lyrics this article cited mentioned “retard” or “retarded” which are insulting, but this whole article was insulting… it was ridiculous.

      1. I almost laughed that this arrived this morning, right after I verbally scolded a relative for exactly this. Even the term “retard” or “retarded” should be discarded in favor of developmentally delayed or disabled. The sad thing is that the words are used to hurt others. 😦

      2. I agree, developmentally delayed or disabled is better than “mentally retarded”. I heard something the other day, I can’t remember exactly how it went, but it was something like “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words leave psychological scars.”

      3. Since I write for parents, I think this needs to be addressed.

  2. I took the time to read a little bit about the term “mental retardation”. It was brought into use by the medical community to destigmatize whatever previous terms had been uses (moron, idiot). Over time, the term became stigmatized itself. However, remember that it is still in use in the World Health Organization ICD-10 diagnositic manual and in the DSM-IV, so it’s not exactly archaic. Although both ICD-11 and DSM-V will change the terminology to “intellectually disabled”, that term will likely eventually come under stigma, too.
    Also, mental retardation does come under the general umbrella of Mental Disorders, so in that sense, it is a ‘mental illness’.
    People are slow to change how they refer to mental illness. Manic-depressive is still in common use even though it was renamed ‘bipolar’ in the 70s. Multiple personalities is a term understood by most; say ‘dissociative identity disorder’ and people will look at you in confusion. Forget even attempting to explain ‘hypomania’ to someone who is not trained in mental disorders.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog. I am a future LMHC, starting grad school next month. It’s an exciting time.

    1. Hi, thanks for sharing and it is an exciting time. I am always encouraged to see new LMHCs in training. I guess I was disappointed that when I thought I was going to read an article referencing anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, etc., all I found were words referencing mental retardation. You are correct and it’s funny that you mention manic depression because I was just looking over one of my new employees assessments where he diagnosed a guy with major depressive disorder because the guy stated he had been diagnosed with manic depression in the past. This new employee is young, maybe your age, and had no clue that manic depressive disorder is an old word for bipolar disorder so he had to re-evaluate his diagnosis. I’m excited about people like you coming into the field, we have a long way to go in mental health and need bright, dedicated people!

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