In terms of mental health, there are many slang terms used to refer to a psychiatric hospital, (“nuthouse/funny farm etc), but while these terms are still offensive, there is a particular slang term that I think is particularly dangerous. I understand that slang is useful in society and I am not demanding the removal of all slang from now on, but issues can arise with slang when the term becomes more notorious than the correct phrase and actually alters the perception people have of whatever is being referred to. That is the unfortunately the case with the term “loony bin”.
I realise calling a psychiatric unit a “nut house” isn’t accurate either, for example I have never encountered a “nut” when in hospital (other than the odd almond or macadamia in my fruit and fibre…I once heard someone claim they found a pecan in their bowl but I think that was just a myth so don’t take my word on it), but the “loony bin” slang term is particularly damaging as it conjures up ideas of a place into which the rubbish is tipped, a place that people don’t come back from and if anything is utter trash, it is that image.
I myself have had several admissions to various different “loony bins” and I can state with the utmost conviction that none of them bore any similarities to a bin, neither appearance wise or in terms of function. Firstly, on the whole they were all very clean (one had the bathrooms cleaned after practically every use so sometimes I was unable to shower BECAUSE they were being made extra clean), but more importantly none of the patients were anything like waste needing to be dumped.
The problem with the phrase isn’t even just damaging to the self worth of current or ex-patients. Potential inpatients may be scared of, and thus refuse admissions for treatment that they desperately need, because this whole “loony bin” perception has made people fear they will go in and never come out, that they are a lost cause who needs to be locked away from society for good. Admissions to a psychiatric hospital however, are not final destination. Instead they are more of a holiday. Ok, I will admit they are not exactly like a holiday, I know I would prefer a beach in the Caribbean over a stark white bathroom with a staff member watching me pee, but what I mean by this comparison is that they are a place that people come back from (albeit without the much revered tan or photo album). Going into hospital doesn’t have to be a terrifying endgame, define people or morph them into the branded mental patient to be impersonated at Halloween parties.
There is of course also the issue of this “bin” (a name of a place usually reserved for objects not people), being used as a place for “loons”. “Loons” sound like magical creatures, inhuman half breeds who are fundamentally different to “normal people”. The whole idea just emphasises the false distinction between “mental people” and “sane” ones when really they are both exactly the same. People in mental hospitals are not a different species, they are human just like you (unless dear reader, you are in fact a penguin in which case may I congratulate you on finding my blog without opposable thumbs).
I think it is comforting to label people with mental health problems as loons to be kept in a separate lidded inhuman/object bin world of restraints and locked doors, because by separating the sane and the insane, making a “them” and “us” situation, it perpetuates the idea that those crazy people are different and therefore you are not at risk of being contaminated. To think that a person screaming and being held down to be injected with anti anxiety medication is just like you is frightening and prompts all kinds of questions like “what if that happens to me”? It is nicer to think of all of that stuff as things that happen to “other” people, that the person cradling a wooden spoon and singing nursery rhymes is different, no possible image of you in the future. It is nice to put the lid on the idea and leave it outside the house for the rubbish collectors to remove so you don’t have to deal with it in your home.
The derogatory slang of “loony bin” and resulting “loon/human”, “them/us” dumping ground view of psychiatric units really is a use of language that has the ability make patients feel hopeless and forgotten, doomed waste discarded for good, and it creates judgement in people without mental health issues that just continue the stigma and fear that surrounds it all. I urge people to know that none of this is true.
For patients who have been admitted I want to say that life is not over, and being in hospital doesn’t mean that you are rubbish or damaged beyond repair and the landfill is not your future and final destination.
If anything I would say the slang for a psychiatric hospital should be “the temporarily out of order and in need of repair tray”, just like “normal” hospitals that treat only physical illnesses. It is not a place to be thrown in when you don’t have a place in the real world anymore, it is just a place in which you remain as human and as worthy of life as anyone else on the planet, you just have a few cracks in your porcelain skin that needs a little glue to help them stick back together.
We need to stop seeing psychiatric hospitals as bins or end games for the weird wastes of failed humanity, but as places for ordinary people who are just struggling in life and need a little support to get back into full working order, simply time and space to patch things up and get them well enough to leave that repair tray so they can go back home.