I’ve often remarked on the absurdity of the English language. When I was a teenager, we all ran around saying we were bad. Except, of course, we meant it in an extremely positive way. I don’t really know why, after many generations of “bad” meaning something negative, teenagers in the 80s decided to change the definition to something positive. But we did, and most people (eventually) understood what we meant when we said it.
However, what happens when words change meanings in a way that is considered – at least by some – to be derogatory. As an example, there is nothing inherently offensive about riding a short bus, but “short bus” has become a slang way of calling someone developmentally delayed. It’s not just offensive to the person being insulted; it’s equally offensive to people who live with developmental disabilities.
I’ve written before about how language influences people’s opinion of people living with mental illness. A popular episode of The Psych Central Podcast asked, “Does Person-First Language Reduce Mental Illness Stigma?” We even spoke, briefly, about this meteorological question.
Should You Say Bipolar or Schizophrenic Weather?
So, to the question of whether or not people should say the weather is bipolar or schizophrenic I say this:
Try to avoid it. It does legitimately hurt some people’s feelings. Even though I, personally, feel those people are looking at this incorrectly, collectively, we aren’t a group of people who hold a lot of sway in society. People living with mental illness are discriminated against, often, and I recognize that it would mean a lot to them if you found a different way to say the weather is being fickle.
I realize that these words have multiple meanings, just like the word bad can mean something negative or positive. People with mental illness don’t own the words bipolar or schizophrenic – but the most common usage of these words is within a mental health context.
For what it’s worth, I’m not offended when people say that politicians are cancerous to democracy, either. It isn’t because I don’t have cancer; it’s because I recognize the context of what’s being communicated. Because, as I’ve written about before, context matters. (Read: Why “I Am Bipolar” is NOT an Offensive Statement)
To people living with mental illness who hear people say “the weather is bipolar and/or schizophrenic” I say this:
The person using that phrase most likely isn’t trying to be offensive. They are just repeating a phrase they overheard that means the weather is changing rapidly or unexpectedly. They aren’t insulting anyone. Just as in the examples above, bipolar and schizophrenia have multiple meanings.
I recommend taking a deep breath and respectfully opening a dialogue. I’d wager most people would be unlikely to use it if they knew it was hurting someone. Explain the history of stigma and discrimination against persons living with mental illness and that you simply dislike that particular phrase. Then, end on a high and say you believe that most people simply aren’t aware that it bothers some people, but you wanted to share.
This is an excellent example of why I feel people need to talk respectfully with one another. I’m not offended by this phrase, but other people are. Consider why it bothers you, and if it still does, talk to those around you. However, I caution you against assuming that people are simply being jerks.
Life, like words, just isn’t that simple.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer, activist, and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. Gabe runs an online Facebook community, The Positive Depression/Bipolar Happy Place, and invites you to join. More great information can be found on his website, GabeHoward.com.