Shaping Perceptions of Bipolar Disorder with Language

Shaping Perceptions of Bipolar Disorder with Language

Bipolar Disorder is Serious

I recently went to a symposium on the stigma of mental illness; the panelists ranged from those with severe mood disorders, to family members of those with mental illnesses, to local government officials there to address the problem of how to treat the mentally ill with limited government budgets.

One panelist was the mother of a woman in her early 20’s who had been hospitalized for severe depression and put on what basically amounted to a “suicide watch” while she was there. She and her daughter co-authored a memoir on her struggles with Bipolar Disorder. Both mother and daughter were panelists at the symposium.

One of the audience members asked the mother what she felt about the language used to describe Bipolar Disorder. Specifically, she was asked whether or not it was ok to use language like, “She struggles with Bipolar Disorder.” The mom responded that she didn’t like the term “struggles with” and preferred the term “lives with” instead because of the power of language to shape our perceptions about mental illness and Bipolar Disorder.

After she answered the question, I looked to her daughter who was “struggling” to maintain a poker face; the daugter maintained her composure and didn’t publicly disagree with her assertive Mom, but maybe she should have.

The same question about language and Bipolar Disorder was then posed to another panelist, Glenn Close’s sister Jessie Close--a big adovocate for the mentally ill. She gave a diplomatic answer; she said she felt like she was struggling with Bipolar Disorder when she was up and down and unstable, but that she was living with it on a day-to-day basis now that she had her meds sorted out. 

I thought back to my own struggles with Bipolar Disorder and the severity of what I had been through and to the young author’s definite struggle to stay alive, and I realized that I did agree with her mom in that language is important in shaping opinions, but that I disagreed with her about the use of the word “struggle.”

Using the term “lives with” as a substitute for “struggles with” suggests that everything is always ok, and that Bipolar Disorder (or whichever mental illness is being referred to) is a relatively minor bump in a person’s life.

It is not.

Bipolar Disorder is a serious disorder and while there are long periods of stability, anyone who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder has to live with the fear that it will return. Changing the terminology to “lives with” makes Bipolar Disorder sound much less severe than it actually is or can be and doesn’t give recognition to the people who have fought with it their whole adult lives. Lots of people who have Bipolar Disorder face either hospitalization or death (from suicide) at some point their lives--inarguably NOT minor bumps.

Let's use the correct language to show what people go through.