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We Need to Stop Using the Word 'Issues' When Referring to Mental Illness

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One of the words that really bugs me in reference to mental illness is “issues.” People use that word to cover a large number of problems. They use it when they don’t quite know what to call it. I’m here to say that bipolar disorder is not an “issue,” but an illness.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Let’s establish some ground work. Everyone has “issues.” No one, regardless of their mental health status, is 100 percent healthy. We all have strained relationships, personal weaknesses and certain challenges. With that said, I want to differentiate between those everyday issues we all have and serious “issues” involved with mental illness.

Mental illness can wreck lives. It can strain relationships. Some of our challenges can become impossible when our illness is active. In that sense, there are issues surrounding mental illness. However, it’s the illness that creates the issues, not the other way around. That’s why psychotherapy for bipolar disorder often involves interpersonal therapy where you receive education and guidance in practical matters — problems that arise directly from your illness.

But don’t confuse issues caused by the illness with issues that stand alone. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that bad relationship skills, trouble coping or bad habits cause our illness. They don’t. They can make the illness worse, but the illness comes first. In fact, it’s quite possible to be very emotionally healthy and still have a serious mental illness.

The word “issues” carries too much baggage. It sounds too much like a failure to cope with life. If you break your leg, for example, your issue is a broken leg — and that is what is addressed in treatment. The same with bipolar disorder. A bipolar episode may create what looks like emotional problems, but often those problems disappear when the illness itself is successfully treated.

If you have a loved one with a serious mental illness, consider how you refer to their illness and treatments. It may be tempting to use the word “issues” to cover a wide variety of problems without being specific. I would ask that you reconsider using that word. An appointment is an appointment. Therapy is therapy and can come in many different forms.

If you’re someone with a serious mental illness, think about what you mean when you refer to your illness as an “issue.” In my experience, the word “issue” can sometimes carry internalized stigma. Always treat your illness first. If you find once your symptoms have gone that you need to work on relationships or coping skills in therapy, then by all means do that. But remember that your illness is real. Symptoms appear psychological because the illness exists in the brain. Just because you have a mental illness, that does not mean you necessarily have “issues.”

Getty Images: Victor_Tongdee

Originally published: September 4, 2019
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