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Mental health is a sensitive subject around the world, and Russian certainly attaches a certain stigma to mental health issues. Read about the different ways to refer to mental health in Russian and learn which expressions to use and which to avoid if you want to talk about this delicate issue with compassion.
The title of this post comes from a poem (стихотворение) by Alexander Pushkin (Александр Пушкин). You can read the English translation here. Сойти с ума means “to lose one’s mind;” literally, “to walk off one’s wits.” You may recognize ум — wit, intelligence — and умный, smart.
Сумасшедший means crazy. This word has a rather strong negative connotation, and you may not want to use it for a person with a mental health disorder. Another related word is безумный, insane.
Other rather derogatory ways of saying “crazy” are ненормальный or больной на голову. Once again, they are mostly used to deride someone acting erratically rather than refer to an actual diagnosis.
Коми́ссия смо́трит на меня́ как на сумасше́дшего.
The committee looks at me like I’m crazy.
[Булат Окуджава. Новенький как с иголочки (1962)]
Part of the reason it is so hard to talk about mental health in that many of the related words are heavily medicalized. By that I mean, for instance, in English the expression “mental disorder” may refer to such common conditions as anxiety (тревога) or depression (депрессия). The usual Russian counterpart, психическое заболевание or психическое расстройство, evokes conditions that are more stigmatized as “abnormal” in Russian society, like bipolar disorder (биполярное расстройство) or schizophrenia (шизофрения). This is doubly true for anything with психиатр/психиатрический (psychiatrist/psychiatric).
The flip side of this is that more “common” conditions like depression, which the speaker may have, are often not seen as a real condition by laypeople. I would often hear people in Russia make fun of Americans who see a counselor (психолог, often erroneously called психоаналитик), saying that Americans don’t have real friends who they could talk to about their problems so they have to pay to see someone.
As a result, it is scary for a Russian person to admit that they or their loved one may have a mental disorder due to the stigma attached to them. After all, псих is the equivalent of “psycho,” so it may be odd to be talking about психическое здоровье (mental health). Some organizations refer to mental health as душевное здоровье (from душа, soul), which may help overcome the stigma.
Мужчи́ны ча́ще страда́ют от серьёзных психи́ческих боле́зней и алкого́льных психо́зов.
Men suffer from serious mental illness and alcohol-induced psychoses more often.
[Григорий Тарасевич. 100 различий между М и Ж // «Русский репортер», 2014]
Have you ever talked about mental health in Russian? What was that like?
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