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Bipolar: Use the Term Wisely and Accurately

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When celebrities exhibit a pattern of irrational behavior, my mind tends to wander to the question of mental illness. However, I am well-educated in this area, being a clinical depressive myself and having a best friend with bipolar disorder. I’ve done tons of research into the subject, taken psychology courses, and witnessed and lived through some of the worst things that these types of conditions can bring about.

What worries me is the casual use of “bipolar” in pop culture to define unseemly behavior in general. Like most everyone else, I’ve heard about the antics of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson, and various opinions about their behavior. While many have linked Spears and Lohan to bipolar, it wasn’t until I watched Good Day New York this morning that I heard it connected with Mel Gibson. The program aired a segment with celebrity psychologist Dr. Jeff Gardere, who said that Gibson’s pattern of angry verbal diarrhea outbursts could be a product of a manic state.

If he does indeed have bipolar disorder, that would make a lot of sense. When someone is in mania, they’re hyperactive, can’t sleep, can’t control their thought patterns, are impulsive, have erratic in behavior, and are reckless. This can even lead to psychosis, even though they’re in a “high” state, rather than a deep depression.

Considering the stigma that goes along with mental illness, bipolar in particular since it’s become a new “catch phrase” of sorts, it’s likely that if someone has “gotten by” throughout their life without diagnosis and treatment, they wouldn’t seek it out. With someone from Gibson’s generation, it’s less likely, since it’s only recently that society has become more open about these types of disorders.

But though we are more educated about mental illness than we were in previous decades, we’re still battling stigmas that are continually inflamed by the media. For example, People Magazine reports that The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar is now selling “The Mel Gibson: A Bipolar Cocktail.” This story was repeated on Good Day New York this morning, where one of the hosts actually asked Gardere, “Aren’t we all a little bipolar?”

Are you kidding me? Going through the normal highs and lows triggered by everyday life is a far cry from losing control of your concept of reality or becoming psychotic because your brain chemistry and electrical balance are not in check.

And while the creation of the cocktail itself could have been just a business decision that was made in poor taste, the fact that the media picked it up and has been growing it as a “story” is turning it into something that is further stigmatizing not only the condition, but the man himself. When I went to confirm the name of the cocktail, I typed “Mel Gibson bipolar” in my Google search window and third on the list of automatic suggestions was “Mel Gibson bipolar cocktail.” What I found was the People Magazine story about it, which has been posted on their web site since July 21.

The fallout of this attention can’t be good for anyone. First, it only created further negative stigmas about bipolar disorder, when most people don’t really understand what it’s about in the first place. For example, I had two students who had bipolar disoreder in one of the college classes I teach. They did not disclose their condition to their classmates or anyone else, nor should they have had to.

When another student casually used the term “bipolar” in a discussion when referring to some kind of abnormal behavior exhibited by a character in a story we were discussing, both students were offended by his comment, as was I, since it was far from accurate and was used like it was part of the student’s everyday vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve seen this situation repeated in my classes, which goes to show how desensitized the younger generations are to the term.

Second, if Gibson really does have bipolar and media/pop culture are making fun or light of the disorder, what are the chances that he’ll actually seek out help? Bipolar is a very serious medical condition that can lead those who suffer from it to hurt themselves or others if it’s uncontrolled. Getting a phone call from a hospital that someone you know has tried to commit suicide because they were in a hyper-depressive state and had little sense of reality is something I would not wish on anyone.

Though I know by writing this piece I, too, am drawing attention to these negative perceptions of bipolar disorder, I hope that what I say here can help some people to better understand the reality of what mental illness does to a person. While it’s easy as a populace to look at the actions of celebrities and condemn them for the wrongs they do, we are never privy to the whole story. Yet our perceptions of what they do and our own actions that follow can have a very real impact on the lives of celebrities as well.

I would urge anyone who uses the term “bipolar” as a generalization in their everyday language to think long and hard about the consequences of doing so. You’re not only devaluing the seriousness of the condition itself, but also desensitizing those around you to it, which could cost someone their life.

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About Robin Kavanagh

  • My compliments Robin! This is a wonderful article. I’ve just started blogging about mental illness. One of the first subjects I focused on was the use of the term “Bipolar” in the media vs. what it actually means. Though you wrote this article nearly 3 years ago, unfortunately the subject still needs to be addressed. Great job!

  • Millie Guerrero

    There is a great difference from someone who has bipolar disorder to others who think they understand and know it.
    It is a disease like any other. I don’t see the term diabetic drink being associated with an actor at a bar. If you find one, please let me know. Or how about a cancer drink? Is it so casually used, or is it respected as a horrible disease that effects its victims with devastating consequences. What do people think that people with Bipolar Disorder have? They think we’re crazy. Simple and truthful and that stigma will follow us around for the rest of our lives. Do we want people educated, absolutely? Do people want to be educated, now that’s the question left unanswered. How long did it take the general population to understand Aids? It’s been around for who knows how long, but it isn’t until these past few decades, that we termed it and brought the issue to the public. And what population has this disease affected the most? I don’t think I have to answer that.
    Everyone has an opinion, mine is, I agree with Robin’s position. I as a person with Bipolar Disorder, would like to be relieved from the stigma and tactless usage of the term, for the benefit of entertainment or public dispute.
    There is a quote from the Heart of Darkness, “The horror is, is that there is no horror.”

  • Mac

    Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are so obviously bipolar it isn’t funny. What’s more, it’s quite likely that many celebrities are bipolar. The type of frantic creativity typical of some types of hyper-mania is likely seen often in the creative community.

  • Bipolar is just one of many clinical terms to enter our pop cultural lexicon. It’s commonplace, including right here on Blogcritics, for online disputants to call each other “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile.” Each of those terms denotes a precise category within the study of IQ, but popular usage is much less discerning.

    Other diagnostic terms that get thrown around a lot, especially in political discussions, include:
         • Demented
         • Hysterical
         • Narcissist
         • Obsessive
         • Paranoid
         • Psycho
         • Retard
         • Sadist
         • Schizo

    Yet instead of seeing pop culture’s embrace of “bipolar” as part of this venerable tradition, which ultimately takes the sting out of such pejorative terms, you express outrage. You complain that “we’re still battling stigmas that are continually inflamed by the media. For example, People Magazine reports that The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar is now selling ‘The Mel Gibson: A Bipolar Cocktail.'” You’re taking this too seriously, Robin. Is there any evidence that the Mel Gibson bipolar cocktail has inflamed or created further stigmas about bipolar disorder? I doubt it.

    One way of overcoming stigmas is to slowly, persistently and methodically sensitize the public to the problem. Another, much faster way is to boldly demolish the stigma by desensitizing people, to make previously shame-laden terms such as bipolar part of your student’s everyday vocabulary. You claim that desensitizing “could cost someone their life” because it devalues the seriousness of the condition. That’s pure conjecture. Desensitizing might actually save someone’s life by making it easier for all concerned to talk about the condition. Take, for example, the terminology surrounding homosexuality. Gay men transformed their status in part by embracing words like “queer” and “faggot,” defusing their value as hate speech by adding them to our everyday vocabulary. It’s not a bad approach.

  • Diana

    Thank you for this. I have Bipolar disorder and I hate the casual way that the phrase is tossed around. I even hear it in weather reports nowadays…..the weather bipolar today. It trivializes a horrible disease and that isn’t what the people who suffer from it need.