You’re Wrong About Insanity

Today while talking to a colleague, they stated that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. This constant repeating of this “definition” has always bothered me, as I KNOW it’s not accurate. So I finally decided to look up the definition, and while I was looking I found an article from Psychology Today that summed up my feelings. This pop culture misinformation has been a consistent torn in my side on a daily basis. As a professional dealing with consumers that have diagnoses ranging from Autism to Schizophrenia, it bothers me that this phrase is used daily by professionals that work with my clients on a daily basis, and preach it as gospel.

Insanity is a prefect example of why we use Person First Language in the field of ABA. Consumers will often identify with their labels, and make that who they are. This is why we say a person has Autism, not that they are Autistic. Also, we can say a person has/is diagnosed with Schizophrenia, we do not say they are Schizophrenic. By the time consumers transition into adult services, they hold on to labels as definitions of who they are, and often times, those labels are not use anymore. For example, I have adult clients who’s paperwork still say they are Mentally Retarded, and they refer to themselves as Retarded, but I cannot call them that and can only use it when referring to their official diagnosis. Insanity works similarly; a person can be legally insane – meaning they have been classified as insane. However, they do not have insanity. When dealing with consumers that are legally insane, they have a full spectrum of diagnoses that they are medicated and/or treated for, and none of those medications or treatments are specifically for “insanity”.

Insanity is a legal term, not psychological. You will NEVER find anyone diagnosed with insanity. However, they may be found to be insane.

The following is an excerpt from this Psychology Today article, which perfectly sums up my frustrations.
(The quoted lines are in blue, and the citation is in red.)

I hear this every week, sometimes twice a day: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” No, it isn’t. To be clear, insanity is a legal term pertaining to a defendant’s ability to determine right from wrong when a crime is committed. Here’s the first sentence of’s lengthy definition:

Insanity. n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

Insanity is a concept discussed in court to help distinguish guilt from innocence. It’s informed by mental health professionals, but the term today is primarily legal, not psychological. There’s no “insane” diagnosis listed in the DSM. There’s no “nervous breakdown” either, …

Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP
Psychology Today
” The Definition of Insanity – Perseverance versus perseveration.”
Posted Jul 27, 2009


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