“Your baby seems so happy one minute and is crying the next…are they bipolar?”
Most people have heard something to the extent of this phrase before. Whether the term was used to describe another person or the weather, our culture tends to use these words casually, as if they are simply an adjective to describe how something or someone is. Those words may seem harmless in the moment, but the way those words are used truly shape the way individuals perceive one another and mental illnesses.
When someone uses “bipolar” to describe something other than a serious health concern, they are lessening the effect of the seriousness and giving it meaning elsewhere. Such as in the phrase first listed, using “bipolar” in that context does three things: 1) gives the impression that it is not typical for a baby to be happy one minute and crying the next, and 2) places a serious stigma around “bipolar” and what it really means to have bipolar disorder, and 3) labels the person instead of viewing them as someone who suffers from an illness.
Bipolar disorder is much more than crying one minute and smiling the next – it disrupts sleep patterns, relationships, and causes mood swings, but to a much higher extent. According to Dr. Matt Goldenberg, these mood swings typically involve the person experiencing extreme highs and lows over the course of a few days or weeks – not typically over the course of a single day. Misconceptions of what bipolar disorder involves provides a tendency for people to misdiagnose themselves.
In addition to the stigma of bipolar disorder, calling someone “bipolar” doesn’t give that person room to be themselves. Just as someone may not like to be labelled as “mean” or “annoying”, no one enjoys being placed in a category, because each person has so many things to offer and is more than their illness.
By understanding the meaning behind the language that is used, one can develop a sense of unity and can help uplift others by portraying mental illness for what it is – an illness that deeply affects the individual. Remembering the appropriate usage of these words and gently correcting our loved ones is a great start to changing the way our culture perceives mental illnesses. Here are some tips on combating incorrect use of mental illness terms:
- Provide information. Oftentimes, people do not even know what a specific mental illness truly consists of. If you have the knowledge of this, respectfully present facts about the mental illness so that they are more knowledgeable on the topic.
- Politely inform the person that someone may be offended by what they are saying.
- Rephrase their language in a way that gently corrects it, and ask questions to clarify so that it allows the person to think about what they said. For example: “The weather is so bipolar today.” “What do you mean? Bipolar Disorder doesn’t fit there – are you referring to the weather changing lately? I’m definitely ready for the rain to stop.”
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