I lead a weekly support group for bipolar students through Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia. Each week, discussion varies considerably usually reflecting the different struggles that students may have encountered during the preceding week. No two weeks are the same as it's all too clear that bipolar disorder during the university years presents a wide range of different challenges.
If I do find any predictability, it's usually in group members' responses to the stigma of having bipolar disorder, especially when it's perpetuated by those who are grossly insensitive and typically know little about the disorder. If there's one comment that really frosts the students in the group, it's when they hear someone described as being "so bipolar," a comment which typically carries a derogatory connotation as opposed to diagnostic meaning. So Linda is talking with Carolyn about a mutual friend of theirs named Kate and she's referring to the fact that Kate often tends to be very emotional. Linda says "Oh, she's so bipolar!" Carolyn laughs, agrees and neither pauses to reflect upon what was just exchanged.
Well, Kate may indeed be a bit more emotional than her peers, but her emotionality likely has nothing to do with being bipolar. Kate is just being Kate. Some people are more emotional; some are less. Just like some flowers are red and others are white. But being red, white, pink or blue doesn't mean you're bad, wrong or unacceptable. What it does mean is that Linda and Carolyn are in agreement that Kate's emotionality is distasteful. But what's worse, is they do so while aggressively using the bipolar diagnosis. And what's really interesting about this is that if Kate possibly overheard the comments directed towards her, she wouldn't be pleased, but she might not be as angered as the students in my group whenever they overhear a similar conversation.
Sometimes the term bipolar is bandied about with great insensitivity, like it's a character flaw warranting social criticism. It's an illness and those with it usually hate the fact that they have it. They also typically put forth considerable effort trying to hold on to their emotional stability. Would we say, "Oh she's so diabetic!?" No, probably not. We'd more likely feel compassion for the plight of a young adult whose pancreas doesn't produce sufficient insulin.
Bipolar disorder continues to be shrouded with the stigma of mental illness. Individuals with the disorder usually feel some degree of shame and guilt as a consequence of their recurrent instability. They often feel like they are bad, weak or inadequate. These feelings become confirmed through disparaging comments like those of Carolyn's and Linda's.
What to do? First if you're ever the recipient of a bipolar slur, then you might consider saying something like people with bipolar disorder shouldn't bear the brunt of relational aggression. Their illness isn't their fault. And if you're someone with bipolar disorder, then you might seriously consider the benefit of gradually coming out to your circle of friends.
Think of it... if you know someone who's bipolar and you have a fair degree of respect for them, you're not likely to put someone else down while using a bipolar slur. Interpersonal experience does gradually alter prejudice which is usually born out of ignorance. If your friends accurately see and understand your bipolar reality, then they'll be less likely to perpetuate damaging stigma. Bit by bit, your truth will have impact.
This past week one of our support group member said it's 100 times easier to tell someone she's lesbian than it is to say she's bipolar. I believe her. I also know that 25 years ago very few would have said there was anything easy about coming out. Well GLBT individuals have come a long way in emerging from their shadows. There's no reason we won't see the same occur with bipolar disorder. But it won't occur through passivity and secrecy. If bipolar stigma is to lessen, it will happen gradually through your sustained effort.
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Russ Federman is co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar (New Harbinger Publications), see www.BipolarYoungAdult.com