When you use the word “bipolar,” what do you mean? Bipolar disorder is a real medical problem experienced by real people. There are 150 million of us worldwide. We go to our doctors, psychiatrists, pharmacists and therapists. We take extra precautions with mundane activities to avoid triggering a mood swing. We deal with the repercussions when those efforts aren’t enough, because we are not ultimately in control. We do all of this living with your fear of us, your disdain. This is what it means to be “bipolar.” It’s not your slang to throw around regarding people and actions you don’t like.
Any behavior that makes someone feel uncomfortable can be written off by some people as “crazy” or “insane.” While in context and seemingly innocuous, loosely throwing around terms like these is hurtful and damaging to those of us who have to live with the social consequences of having a mental illness.
I realize that, as patients, we do not have a monopoly on the word “bipolar.” We do not get to choose how people use it. As a general term, it relates to anything that has two extremes. However, when you casually call someone bipolar, you probably aren’t referring to transistors or brain cells. You’re probably being glib and don’t have the right words.
So, just to clarify on appropriate usage, “bipolar” does not mean:
Everyone has moods. There are good moods, bad moods, elation, sadness and apathy. Just because someone has overtly negative mood swings on occasion does not mean they are bipolar.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling between extreme moods- mania and depression. It’s a disorder. That means it significantly interferes with our daily lives. We’re not grumpy; we’re dysphoric. We’re not sad; we’re suicidal.
This one could also be “two-faced” or “fair-weather.” We’ve all had relationships where we feel like the other person loves you one day and hates you the next. This is not bipolar. This is being an asshole.
Unpredictability does exist in bipolar disorder. Buying 100 lawn flamingos during a manic episode is not exactly average behavior, but again, in bipolar disorder the behavior is extreme and possibly destructive.
Yes, having a serious mental illness does increase the chance of violent behavior. Aggression is present in about 25% of the bipolar population, mostly those who are untreated. It’s also not only bipolar disorder patients who exhibit aggressive or violent behavior. Schizophrenia, PTSD, substance abuse disorder, personality and behavioral disorders all carry an increased chance of violence.
A person also doesn’t have to have a mental illness to commit violence. People with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.
So, next time someone behaves in a way you don’t approve of or that scares you, think before calling them bipolar (or anything else). The person may have bipolar disorder, but that just means they need your help and patience, not your derision.
People struggle daily with bipolar disorder. We fight with the impulsivity, the delusions, agitation, depression, guilt, self-doubt, anxiety, euphoria and all the other symptoms that do their best to drown us in our own thoughts and actions. Please don’t trivialize our experience.
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