Until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to how often “bipolar” is used as a descriptive word on a daily basis. If you pay attention you will here any number of people say, “Man, the weather today is so bipolar” or “I am feeling so bipolar today”. Most people say these things without a second thought, knowing deep down that the weather or they themselves for that matter aren’t actually bipolar. But then why do they say it?
Most people would reply that it’s because they are simply trying to characterize something that changes from one extreme to the other frequently, and that they see no harm in it. But think about it this way: people with bipolar disorder don’t suffer from changes in mood temporarily. They have a medical condition that impacts their daily lives and will continue to impact them for the rest of their lives even if treated. When we, as a society, use bipolar as a character trait for things as arbitrary as the weather, we are invalidating the seriousness of an illness that is a neurological condition – not a personal quality.
We have made it taboo to call someone “retard” because it is offensive to those with down syndrome and is typically used to insinuate negative qualities about the person being called that name. So why is it any different for the word bipolar? When you describe your moody friend as bipolar it is certainly not a term of endearment. Instead, it is used to convey that there is something wrong with them or that the way they are acting is bad. Think about the message that conveys to those who actually have bipolar disorder. You are telling them that something is wrong with them, that they are “bad” simply because they inherited a biological trait that they had absolutely no control over. The society we live in already makes those with mental illnesses feel like they don’t belong or that they are weird or “crazy.” The everyday use of neurological diagnoses doesn’t help promote the inclusivity that all people, regardless of mental illnesses, deserve. So the next time your friend is acting especially moody or the weather is changing back and forth at an unusually frequent rate, remember to consider those who are actually affected by bipolar disorder and how your words may affect their lives.
Kylie Kerker is a freshman at Syracuse university and new to Active Minds. She’s studying biology and Neuroscience and hopes to study the biological basis of mental illnesses. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on instagram @krekrek5.