The Mighty Logo

Before You Toss the Word 'Bipolar' Around, Consider This

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

It’s tempting, isn’t it? Automatic almost. The go-to word you want (and will) use for someone who is pleasant one day and terrible the next. Who seems to have dual personalities. A mood-shifter in a matter of minutes. I know it’s tempting. For the first time in my entire life, I used the word myself, and I felt like the hugest hypocrite in all the land. I dare not use it again if it the glove doesn’t fit the hand that lost it.

Do you know which word I speak of? And don’t worry. I won’t chide you, scorn you or turn sour towards you for using it. How could I? I used it myself less than 48 hours ago.

The word itself defines an illness — one that can be earth-shaking, mind-twisting, trouble-making and at times uncontrollable or inconsolable. Does the glove fit?

Yes, the illness itself can be an detrimental all on its own. It can mangle relationships. Convince you out of a happy and healthy life.

Like any other mental illness, “bipolar” disorder is attached to a stigma. The negativity surrounding bipolar disorder is so severe it is a risky move to so innocently use “bipolar” to describe an individual who is moody, when we know the illness does not fit the person. Let me rephrase that. Many people don’t know if the illness fits the person. And when they use it, they aren’t even referring to the person’s real mental state. Many don’t know what the word even means. Who the heck was the first to read an article on manic depression or bipolar disorder, and entirely miss the point?

What’s ironic is this. When I became ill for the first time (I was heading towards my breakdown), I remember seeing the words “bipolar” strewn across a magazine cover. And it had an illustration of a head. The head was divided down the middle. One side was white. The other black. I forget the exact title. It was something like, “Is Your Teen Bipolar?” Little did I know, I was holding the secrets to my own mentality in my hand. I never bothered to read that article, and who knows where that magazine is now.

Being bipolar can make a person seem to have split personalities or to be mood-shifters. If their cycle is so erratic that their horizontal axis sky rockets to manic highs and plummets down to depressive lows every several weeks or so, then, yes, I can see the comparison. But whenever I have heard “bipolar” used out of context, it is not labeling an actual person with the condition. It is labeling someone who is a terror one day, and then a saint the next.

The concern is not that calling a person “bipolar” is an insult to people who are bipolar. It is that people who inaccurately use the term are transforming the term “bipolar” into an insult. It is always used negatively. It can be used in derision or comically. “She’s always in a bad, pissy mood. Oh, she must be bipolar or something.” (A sentence often followed by laughter.) “He’s bipolar. He’s happy one day, then, angry the next.” (Something close to what I myself said less than 48 hours ago — so, see, even I am guilty of using it.)

When has “bipolar” ever been used in a positive context or used to characterize someone showcasing good or favorable behavior?

Let’s say, you call your stepmother a witch. Now, we all know when we call a woman a witch, we don’t mean the good kind. Automatically, you are associating your stepmother with everything negative that a bad witch embodies. And yet, your mother is not a witch (unless, she does in fact practice witchcraft, which is something else entirely, and I’ll stay away from that for the time being). However, because society deems the term “witch” when used to describe a woman as something bad or even malignant, we are automatically drawing the conclusion that your stepmother is bad or malignant. And even though, the friend to whom you are complaining about your evil witch of a stepmother knows you are not seriously accusing your stepmother of witchcraft, your friend is now thinking, “Man. What a *itch.” Right? You are furthering the bad witch stereotype and hurting your stepmother’s name in the process. Which perhaps was your aim anyways. It is an insult that isn’t meant to be definitive but illustrative. But it is an insult nonetheless.

Anyone can get carried away with the use of popular phrases or terms. People with bipolar disorder can get carried away with anything their compacted minds decide to hone in on. If you were to accidentally call a person who actually has bipolar disorder “bipolar,” you might not realize you hit it on the nose. If he or she actually did struggle with bipolar disorder and you joke, “Are you like bipolar or something?” expect either crickets chirping, a punch in the face or a back turned to you followed by the sound of their footsteps fading away.

Most won’t. I really think the worst you can expect is a seething glare that burns holes into the back of your brain. Because, yes, many of us are touchy. Not all of us are all cool and calm as me (kidding). And no, we are not all volatile. If anything, I imagine we are quiet and subdued, struggling in silence, perhaps, taking your blows.

I am not writing this to antagonize or verbally assault you. I am writing in hopes you’ll refrain from using a term that can prove dangerous if said to or around the wrong person. A term that can hurt or harm. A term that gets under my skin sometimes and makes me shake my head and makes me hope they are teaching kids about mental illness in schools these days.

We all know we never learned about it growing up. But now that we have the knowledge, we have the power. And now that you know, I hope you reconsider your tendency to throw the term around.

Originally published: June 30, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home