Cute But Psycho: Mental Illness Appropriation

By Nicole Beaver




I’m moving away from my venture into health practices and physical ailments to talk about, once again, psychosis. It’s October, and this time of year is full of spooky, scary skeletons and creepy fun. And, of course, the infamous “insane asylum” costumes and the fear of those afflicted with psychosis. I wrote two years ago about this appropriation and thought it was high time to do it again. Of course, there are always people who do not understand the impact of their statements, both from taste and favorite captions. There are people making comments that “everyone’s a little insane”, glorifying music artists and shows that romanticize mental illness, and buying t-shirts and other items labeled “cute but psycho” and calling themselves some iteration of the phrase. All of these are untrue, offensive, or both. Often, when people reference these, they are referencing psychosis.

Psychosis is an umbrella term encompassing symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech/behavior. Other symptoms, often less evident than the more commonly known ones, are a decreased ability to start/initiate tasks, lowered levels of motivation or drive, lack of interest in other people, and inability to feel pleasure. It is also common for other symptoms or issues to occur along with the psychotic symptoms including depression, anxiety, alcohol and/or other drug use problems, and difficulties functioning among many others. You see psychosis on TV being portrayed by neurotypical actors in shows like Criminal Minds in people who regularly seek to harm others. That could not be further from the truth. BetterHelp Vic clarifies this in their article “Mental illness and violence,” observing behaviours by Australians diagnosed with any form of psychotic illness who had also reported physical abuse within the previous year, For instance:

  • 18 percent had been a victim of violence.
  • 17 percent attempted suicide or deliberate self-harm.
  • 15 percent did not feel safe in the area where they were living.

This shows that people with a psychotic illness carry the added burden of feeling vulnerable to harm.

The article also clarifies that there is a slightly increased possibility that someone with a psychotic illness may be violent if they are not receiving effective treatment, have a previous history of violence, and/or are misusing alcohol or drugs. Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology has shown that the vast majority of violence is committed by men aged 18 to 30 years old, who have a history of violence and misuse alcohol/drugs. People in this group are far more likely to be violent than someone with a mental illness.

When treatment is initiated, the psychotic symptoms should lessen and will usually fade away, often completely. However, some and especially negative symptoms may linger. Even with a good response to treatment, problems such as depression, decreased self-esteem, social problems and difficulties with work or school may require further support and treatment to help enable a life lived to the fullest. 

It’s no joking matter or a cute slogan. It is a serious condition that no one wants to find themselves in. The Odyssey Online details in their article, “‘Cute But Psycho’: Modern Youth’s Appropriation of Mental Illness” details Marisa Wojcikiewicz’s thoughts on the matter: “The majority of people don’t see the problem with using the term “psycho” in casual conversation. We generally feel no sympathy for those suffering from psychopathy, in large part due to the media portrayal of psycho/sociopathology as a marked indicator of violence. Of course, violent/sexual offenders do often meet the criteria for psychopathology/antisocial personality disorder, but not all “psychos” are aggressive.” I agree with her that it’s not healthy nor appropriate to think so. My article’s viewpoint of non-appropriation comes from my personal life, where someone I care deeply for has a psychotic disorder. They are far from abnormal; they are a funny, upbeat, hard-working, and an overall friendly person to those whom they get to know. The bad days come and pass, and the real person I know and adore always manages to put a smile on my face. They are far from a violent offender, but stereotypes stick. I have to still catch myself when I want to use “psycho” because I remember the person attached to the label, who is the farthest thing from society’s views of cruel, violent, dangerous or vile. It is so ingrained within our society that this word has been created as a universal term for those living with psychosis and other mental disorders. This reality points to the biggest reason “Cute but Psycho” is mental illness appropriation.

Maria puts it perfectly into perspective: “Appropriation of any kind is demonstrative of the more privileged demographics trying to make everything their own. Whether it’s cultural appropriation or, in this case, appropriation of the attractive qualities of a painful illness, the act is generally committed by white people who want to be more interesting or ethnic… labeling themselves as “psycho” to seem edgy for their Instagram aesthetic, claiming an identity without doing anything to learn about it or respecting its origins is wrong. You can’t just take the parts you like without understanding the whole. Especially if you are ignorant of the fact that you have the privilege.” 

This is something to take heed of the next time you’re about to use a caption involving “psycho” in any way. Please be mindful and aware of those who do struggle with psychosis, and have respect for those who live with being “psycho” — rather, mentally ill — every day.

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