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.

Bipolar Disorder: A Snap Shot Through A Clients’ Eyes

The other day I was privileged to work with a client who had been battling bipolar disorder for over 30 years. This remarkable woman, we’ll call her Jane, first started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder at the age of 17.

In high school Jane was popular and on her way to be the school valedictorian, and then suddenly she was struck with a deep, deep depression. She describes that depression as feeling like someone had taken a dark veil and wrapped it all around her. It was suffocating.

During this depression Jane slept and ate as much as possible, gaining a large amount of weight. Her father, whom she lived with and was very close to, had no idea how to handle this situation. Instead of getting her help, he let her wade through this depression which she eventually came out of and went on to graduate from high school despite having a very rough year.

Then she started college, and the other side of bipolar disorder showed up, mania. She was extremely hyper, unfocused, partying all the time, exhausting her friends and boyfriend who eventually broke up with her and she quickly failed out of college.

Her father, still confused about what was going on with his daughter and maybe in denial or frustration, sent her to live with relatives on the other side of the country, telling her to get herself together.

By the time Jane was relocated with other family members, the depression was back and so was the binging and the weight gain. Jane reported that she slept as much as possible to try to avoid the intensely deep depression.

The mania and depressive episodes continued and eventually Jane left her family, ended up living on the street abusing drugs and alcohol like so many people who have a mental illness, but feel misunderstood do.

Eventually she was arrested and later hospitalized where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on Lithium, which she still takes to this day.

After she got treatment for her disorder, Jane was able to be her true self again. As she describes it, “Lithium allows me to be me”. She became fully functioning, got married, had children and obtained a job making six figures.

However, eventually her husband and her started having marital problems and she felt as if she had lost the bark she used to have when she wasn’t on lithium and was in one of her manic states. She felt as if the lithium was dulling her ability to stand up for herself so she stopped taking it.

In a short matter of time she fell back into a manic state which caused her to drive halfway across the country where she was eventually hospitalized after she was found wandering the streets telling people she was Jesus and they should follow her.

She was hospitalized and put back on Lithium, but by then she had lost her husband. Now however, she knows that bipolar disorder is something that she is going to have to live with, deal with and respect her whole life.

Now she doesn’t have a six figure job, or a husband, but she has her life back and she goes around speaking to groups about bipolar disorder in hopes to help get rid of the stigma of mental illness through recognition and education about mental illness.

There is a lot of stigma that goes with mental illness which causes those who are affected with it to refuse to talk about it and get help, and family members and friends to live in denial, refusal or misunderstanding about it.

Jane is helping people talk about mental illness so that someone doesn’t have to go through the things she went through before finally getting help.

She is a remarkable and strong person like most people who battle a mental disorder are once given the tools and support they need.