“I’m So OCD!” Mental Health Issues Are Not Adjectives

April 6, 2016  |  

Using bipolar disorder as an adjective is damaging to those living with the disorder.

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If you’re living in the Northeast, you know that the weather has been a little erratic to say the least. With spring-like temperatures one day and snow the next, it’s hard to keep up with the changes and get your wardrobe to match. But would you say that the weather is “bipolar”? Or what if you’re meticulous about cleaning your house and feel the hairs stand on your neck any time someone puts a glass on your coffee table without a coaster. Does that really make you “OCD” (obsessive compulsive disorder)?

The phrases I’ve noted above may sound odd out of context, but they both represent conversations that I’ve actually had in which people have used the names of mental illnesses to describe themselves or inanimate objects.

To describe the weather, or your cleaning habits, as bipolar or anything else along the spectrum of mental health illnesses reduces the whole concept of these diseases to a word that one can bandy about whenever the mood strikes. It reduces the struggle that those of us living with bipolar disorder go through every day. Yes, the weather is variable. It’s annoying to experience. But it doesn’t compare with the agonizing lows of depression or the volatile highs of mania.

Comparing common occurrences to bipolar disorder minimizes the impact that the disease has on the patient and their loved ones. If a common occurrence like the weather or cleaning habits can be described as bipolar, then the disease must not be that serious. If it can be reduced to a simple adjective that can be used to describe anything, then it must be all in the mind of those who suffer.

Think about the way we used the word “cancer.” We use it to describe the disease, but we reserve its usage in casual conversation for an entity that behaves like the disease. One that is insidious in its behavior, or uncontrollable in its advancement, or fatal. Some people even whisper “cancer” out of fear or respect for its devastating consequences. Not so with bipolar disorder, which has come to mean anything that has two poles, or two sides, or two sets of distinct characteristics. While etymologically correct, bipolar as an adjective is too common, too ordinary in its usage. Bipolar disorder disables those who suffer from it, often takes away their livelihood, and irrevocably changes their lives. It should be whispered with the same reverence that we reserve for cancer.

Now I’m not necessarily trying to play Word Police. But I am trying to call attention to the ways in which our conversation often minimizes the seriousness of mental illnesses. I want people to understand that every time someone with bipolar disorder hears their disease spoken improperly, we feel less-than, misunderstood, maybe even discriminated against.

Which reminds me that you also shouldn’t describe a person as bipolar, but rather say that they have bipolar disorder. Because no matter how serious our condition, we are not the disease. The disease is something we manage, treat, overcome and not the sum total of our being.

Words matter. They have meaning for the listener, even when no harm is intended by the speaker. So we should all use our words carefully. And stop describing the weather or anything other than a person we know has been diagnosed as bipolar.

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