“Define Insane:” How To Know Whether Someone Is Insane Or Just Different
By Sarah Fader
Updated August 13, 2019
Reviewer Tanya Harell
"Are you insane?"
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
"You're driving me insane."
"I think I'm going crazy."
Words like "insane" and "crazy" are thrown around pretty freely in our culture.
But what do they really mean?
Often, we use the term "insane" to describe someone who is just a little bit different, like an eccentric but lovable aunt, or an obnoxious neighbor.
Other times, we use it to describe ourselves when we are feeling a little out of sync with the rest of the world. If you're going through a stressful or busy time in your life, you might feel distracted or anxious. Although these feelings are perfectly normal, you may find yourself proclaiming, "I think I've lost my mind. I'm going crazy."
But how does one truly define "insane?" Is there such a thing? And if so, what are the signs of insanity? How do you know if a friend, a loved one, or even yourself, might be going crazy?
The answers to these questions are more complex than you might think.
Some Crazy History
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Throughout history as far back as Biblical times, and undoubtedly even earlier than that, there was an acknowledgment that some individuals simply were unable to conform to mutually agreed-upon social norms and conventions. All kinds of labels were applied to such people: mad people, lunatics, maniacs. But the identification of those who fit these labels, as well as accepted treatment, changed through the ages.
In Biblical times, and in Greek and Roman civilizations, some behaviors which we might label as symptoms of insanity today were perceived as signs of special closeness with the divine. If someone had a hallucination in which they heard a voice telling them to murder someone, it did not mean that they were ill…it meant that they were touched by the gods. However, they did try to find medical treatments for symptoms such as delusions and inappropriate public behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, there have been cultures in which simply having a slightly controversial opinion was enough to earn you the label of "insane." In the 1970s, the Soviet Union proclaimed that anyone who disagreed with their regime was mentally ill, leading to mass hospitalizations of Soviet dissenters.
This leads us to our next question.
Is Insanity A Relative Concept?
"Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage."-Ray Bradbury
You will be relieved to know that simply disagreeing with a government or authority figure will no longer earn you the title of "insane" in most parts of the world.
In fact, the definition of "insanity" varies a great deal depending on whom you ask.
There are several definitions, including a popular and often-quoted one that is frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein or Mark Twain even though, in fact, no one knows where it came from: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
While this definition can be an accurate description of some dysfunctional behaviors that might accompany an illness like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or some forms of frontal lobe brain injury, it is not, in itself, a catch-all definition for "insanity." On the contrary, there are some situations in which it is a desirable and healthy behavior to repeat the same action over and over, like if you are practicing a new skill or sending out job applications.
So this definition, although it's catchy and smart, won't help you to determine a person's true mental state.
So let's turn to Merriam Webster.
Here we find three different possible definitions of insanity:
- a severely disordered state of mind usually occurring as a specific disorder. (dated)
- unsoundness of mind or lack of the ability to understand that prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or that releases one from criminal or civil responsibility (legal definition)
- extreme folly or unreasonableness.
Since the third definition seems to be more conversational rather than defining a mental state, we'll focus on the first two, which leaves us with both a medical and a legal definition of insanity.
Insanity is a legal term and not a psychological term. The legal definition appears to support our understanding of insanity as a defense in court in the US. To meet the legal definition of insanity, a defendant must prove that he or she was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong at the time a crime was committed due to the severity of his/her psychosis.
Insanity defense in some form has existed at least since 1581, and probably before that. Governing bodies have constantly had to go back to the drawing board to revise their limitations on when insanity could be used as a defense for heinous crimes. In the US, the legal definition of insanity has been revised several times as a result of specific cases in which the public felt it was applied too broadly or too narrowly. Even today, most people are skeptical of this as a defense, and it is very rarely used in courtrooms nowadays. But when it is, most states hold to the original definition, that the defendant was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.
While knowing whether or not an act is wrong or illegal may work OK in the context of the legal system, it does not fit so well as a definition of insanity in day-to-day life. After all, there are so many nuances of right or wrong. Is it wrong to decide that you'll never leave your house again? Certainly, that may be irrational or unhealthy, but not necessarily "wrong." Is it illegal to call in sick to work every day because of panic attacks? Not, but we can all agree that it's harmful on many levels.
So let's look at the medical definition, which is that "insanity" is a state of mind resulting from a specific disorder. We'll also explore why this first definition is "dated."
All Kinds Of Crazy
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
If we are discussing mental disorders, the most definitive source of information is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published and revised every year by the American Psychological Association.
But you will be hard-pressed to find a definition of "insanity" within it.
In fact, the word "insanity" is not used at all in the mental health community nowadays. Therapists and psychiatrists will not describe anyone as "insane." Even Merriam-Webster labels that first definition as "dated."
Although plenty of stigma around mental illness still exists, our culture is moving away from words like "mad," "crazy" or "insane," at least in a professional context, because they have derived such negative connotations.
However, if you do have concerns as to whether or not you or someone you love may be suffering from symptoms of a mental disorder, there are some warning signs to look for.
- Withdrawing from social activities, or other activities that he or she used to enjoy
- Losing the ability to handle day-to-day responsibilities
- Expressing strange thoughts or delusional, exaggerated beliefs
- Excessive nervousness or worry
- Dramatic shifts in sleeping habits and appetite
- Sudden and dramatic changes in mood (highs and lows)
- Bizarre behavior
- Problems with memory, concentration, and attention
- Extreme Anger
If you or your loved one are showing any combination of these symptoms, it can be confusing and frustrating. In addition to the distress that results from the illness itself, there is the additional social stigma attached to mental illness, which still makes people feel embarrassed and ashamed.
But the good news is that most people suffering from mental disorders can find relief and in most cases, will be able to function normally again, usually with the help of a good therapist, the right medication, or a combination of both.
If you or a loved one need help and you don't know where to turn, you can always visit Better Help to receive compassionate, non-judgmental counseling services from professionals who are trained to help those who have mental illness.
Beyond The Labels
It's human nature to want to put people in a nice little box with a label, especially when we don't understand what is happening to them. But history has shown us that this does more harm than good.
Statistics show that 1 in 25 adults every year experience a mental illness that is severe enough to limit major life activities. Those who suffer from these illnesses are statistically far likelier than the general population to be homeless, to drop out of school, or to commit suicide.
On a more positive note, though, some of the most influential people in history such as Sir Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, and JK Rowling (just to name a few) also struggled with severe mental health issues.
So are you insane?
Maybe so. But if so, you're not that different from the rest of us.
And there's still hope.