Crazy, Mentally Ill, and Meshuga

crazy 1Followers of this blog seek to become experts in a branch of personal interactions referred to as name-calling. Among the words and phrases used in these interactions are “crazy,” “mentally ill,” and “meshuga.” In today’s post, I hope to weave a little narrative around their use in a manner that might take the sting out of them.

The Broad Use of These Words

insultsThese terms are often used so broadly that they mean the same thing as other words and phrases thrown at someone, such as “jerk,” “piece of trash,” “stupid idiot,” etc. When used like this, they all mean nothing more than the angry party strongly doesn’t like what the other party did. They serve as a type of exclamation point.


crazy2“I don’t like what you did,” is not as emotionally packed as, “Listen, you crazy idiot, I don’t like what you did!” Nor is it as emotionally packed as, “You must be mentally ill to do something like that, you jerk!” Nor is it as emotionally packed as, “Oy veh, you putz, you got to be meshuga to do something like that!!”

Of course, it is perfectly possible to convey emotionally packed exclamations without the use of these words.  My mother was a master at this.  Her abilities to clearly define what she objected to and to vary her tone of voice were all the tools she required to amply communicate to people where she stood on an issue.

The Special Similarities of Crazy, Mentally Ill, and Meshuga

crazy3Now, in addition to being used as general insults, “crazy,” “mentally ill,” and “meshuga” can also be viewed as falling into a group of ideas that have more similarities than most of the other insults that might be picked at random. That is, I would guess that “crazy” and “mentally ill” are viewed by most people as being more alike than “crazy” and “jerk,” even though each could be used as general insults.

It is important to note that there are people in our communities that have adopted a particular narrow use of the term “mentally ill.” To illustrate this, Margaret believes she has a mental illness and values that she has come to accept that about herself.  For her, conflicts spring up when she hears someone use the term, “mentally ill” in its more broad, general insult manner.  For example, let’s say Margaret is sitting in her backyard, and she hears that her neighbor, Tim, has gotten into a conflict with Ron. Suddenly she hears Tim shouting at Ron that he is a no good mentally ill idiot!!!  Even though the conflict has, in a sense, nothing to do with Margaret, she becomes angry with Tim for using the term “mentally ill” in this broad, general insult manner.  There is actually no law requiring that Tim adopt the narrower meaning that Margaret uses, but she is still outraged at him.

Who Should Get to Decide When it is Proper to use Terms Such as Crazy, Mentally Ill or Meshuga as a general Insult or in Some Particular Narrow Sense?

Marlene DThe actress, Marlene Dietrich, when asked if she believed in God, replied, “If there is a supreme being, he’s crazy.” In some religious communities, she would have been viewed as crazy for saying this. freudMeanwhile, Dr. Sigmund Freud, who is thought of by many as having been a great expert on mental illness, believed that all religious people suffer from a mental illness. Dr. Carl Jung, an equally great expert on the subject, disagreed with Freud, believing instead that religious people, even people today viewed as psychotic, may be in touch with deep and ancient truths.

Brighton Beach NeighborhoodWhen I was a young boy growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, I heard people from time to time being called a “meshugana,” which I was told means in Yiddish, “a crazy person.” What was unique about how the Yiddish term was used in Brighton Beach, is that as soon as someone was said to be a meshugana, it was very common to have someone stick up for that person with the words, “Hey, everyone has their own mishegas.” Loosely translated, this means that we all have a little craziness within us, so let’s not pretend to be so high and mighty by putting someone down like this.

Now, for people who want to know if they are really mentally ill, they can get the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was developed by the American Psychiatric Association.  I happen to have a copy of it, and as I’ve been studying its pages, it has become apparent that with little imagination we can all be viewed as having some mental illness. That works out pretty good for psychiatrists because this way they never have to turn away any customers who come to their office seeking to become their patients.

Mishegas3But what if we really want to find out if we really, truly are crazy?  Fortunately, there is now an alternative to the DSM, which can finally set us straight. It’s called the Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas (DMOM), and as the ad for it explains, the authors divide

all mental disorders into two realms: mishegas major and mishegas minor. And for each of the sub-categories it analyzes… yenta, kvetch, alter kocker, shnorrer, dementia-with-benefits, etc…THE DMOM will enable readers to transform ordinary tsuris and mishegas—the glooms, blues, angsts, and general chazzerie of their lives—into transcendent and easy-to-understand categories. It will turn kvetching into kvelling and guilt into gelt, so that readers will learn to live at peace with their inner mishegas and to treasure its precious and life-giving absurdities.

Well, I have nothing that mishegosscan top that, so until we meet again, don’t let the insults get to you.

My Best,




Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Psychiatric Name Calling: Is it Helpful?
ADHD or Attention Priority Difference?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Jeff – Love this blog entry. It explains a bit about my Yiddish heritage, insults in general, and is such a positive way to respond. Thanks!

  2. Hi Rick, Much thanks for your kind words of support. They are greatly appreciated.

  3. Hilarious. As a card-carrying crazy, I give it my stamp of approval.

    Without the meshuganas, how would anyone else judge their own perfect mental stability? (Ha ha ha)

  4. From one crazy person to another, I say cheers to our perfect mental instability.

  5. This article saddens me frankly making it somehow ok to harm others with harmful words. Words themselves are just words it is the meaning we give them that matters. The thing is though as a collective we have agreed that these words denote something specific. And frankly we are to rise in consciousness where we no longer use such words to harm others. For when we spiritually mature and come into being a loving person and love ourselves and others, then we have no need nor desire to harm others with such words as what are in this article. Instead of calling someone these words how about seeing the good in them and uplifting them in appreciation showing them the amasingness of what and who they are rather than harming.
    ~When a woman of the Ubuntu African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes to the jungle with other women, and together the women pray and meditate until they receive “The song” of the child. Their Soul Song. When a child is born, the community gets together and they sing the child’s song. When the child begins his or her education, people get together and they sings his/her song. When they become an adult, they get together again and sing it. When it comes to your wedding, the person hears his/her song. Finally, when their soul is going from this world, family and friends approach and, like at his/her birth, sing their song to accompany them in the “journey” back home to Source.
    In the Babemba and Ubuntu tribes, there is another occasion when men sing the Soul Song as they have a social structure with an elementary criminal code. Their close community living makes harshness unnecessary. Once there was a visitor who was deeply impressed by the tribe’s handling of antisocial, delinquent behaviours, which are exceedingly infrequent. When a person acts irresponsibly, unjustly, commits a crime or aberrant social act, he/she is placed in the centre of the village, alone, unfettered and the people of the community form a circle around him/her. All work ceases. All gather around the accused individual and they sing “your song.”, your Soul Song. In addition, each person of every age, begins to talk out loud to the accused. One at a time, each person tells all the good things the one in the centre ever did in his/her lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. No one is permitted to fabricate, exaggerate or be facetious about accomplishments or positive aspects of the accused person. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days, not ceasing until everyone is drained of every positive comment that can be mustered. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe. The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment, but is the love and memory of his/her true identity. When we recognize our own song, we have no desire or need to harm or hurt anyone. Necessity for such ceremonies is rare!
    Your friends and those who love you know “your song”. And sing it to you when you forget it. Those who love you can not be fooled by mistakes you have committed, or dark images you hold about yourself and show to others. They remember your beauty as you feel ugly, your total when you are broke, your innocence when you feel guilty and your purpose when you’re confused.~
    It is time to uplift people rather than use the words in this article.

    • Hi Nenari,

      You wrote in your comments, “This article saddens me frankly making it somehow ok to harm others with harmful words.” I’m sorry that you came away with that impression. In most of the societies that I’m familiar with, people do use the words that I discuss. I was not trying to encourage this or say that it was ok to harm others with harmful words. Instead, I was seeking to make these words less harmful when head.

      I appreciate your kindness and your concern about this matter. You describe a Ubuntu African tribe, and how they respond when a person acts irresponsibly, unjustly, commits a crime or aberrant social act. I can see some merit to this approach. I particularly like the emphasis on the positive acts of the rule breaker.

      Much thanks for sharing with us your views–they are always welcome.

      With Warm Regards,

  6. Hi..i thought your article was quite accutate!!!..infact in parts i identified with it…when she heard the argument and one of the men used the term ‘mentally ill’..the argument had nothing to do with her at all.. but that specific termanology…hit if you like..’a nerve…..reminded me of …well ME…THE CRAZY BUT SANE LADY..

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