For the Last Time: Mental Illnesses Are Not Adjectives

Ugh. So let’s talk about this mess:

ratiochristi

Pictured above is a flyer that reads, “IS THE BIBLE’S GOD BIPOLAR?” in a large font. It includes the name of an organization, “Ratio Christi,” in a stylized text below.

It’s been said before, and it should be common knowledge by now, but apparently it isn’t.

So here’s a fun fact: Mental illnesses are not adjectives.

I’m angry. I’m angry because this isn’t the first time I’ve seen “bipolar” used in such a frivolous, insensitive way, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Do people honestly think that bipolar disorder is just a happy/sad rollercoaster of fun times? Because I’m pretty sure the word you’re looking for is “moody” or “dramatic” or maybe “volatile,” none of which are synonyms for “bipolar.”

Have you considered that maybe God is just really irrational? Because if anything, I think the more accurate description for bipolar would be a place you all describe as “hell.”

When you take a mental illness, and use it to flippantly describe a behavior or mood that has no relevance to the disorder, you completely trivialize the illness. You’re mocking a painful disability, perpetuating stereotypes about these illnesses, and undermining the seriousness of these struggles.

And yet, folks still do this, and they do it often. Apparently mental illness is just really fun to some people.

But here’s the reality: These aren’t descriptors. These aren’t jokes. These are illnesses, and they are experienced by millions of people around the world.

When people use “bipolar” as an adjective, or any other mental illness this way, they’re not actually talking about the illnesses themselves, nor giving visibility to the very real people who struggle with them.

They’re talking about their oversimplified, stereotypical, juvenile understanding of the word, and applying it to something that it isn’t. And what happens when you do this? You make the illness into a joke. You make our lives into a joke. And you render our struggles meaningless.

They aren’t attempting to open up a discussion about a painful illness that disrupts and devastates our lives. They aren’t trying to create a greater understanding of our community and the complicated, challenging, and at times, inspiring lives that we lead. They aren’t trying to raise awareness about mental health or illness, which is one of the leading causes of disability and suicide worldwide.

Instead, they use it as an adjective, undermining both the gravity of the illness and its impact on real, living people.

I don’t particularly care what Ratio Christi’s intentions were when they used the word “bipolar” in this flyer. I’m talking about the impact when you use these words so carelessly. When you use mental illnesses as adjectives, and do not treat it with the seriousness it deserves, you take someone’s lived experience, their struggle, and turn it into a descriptor that gives people the wrong idea of what these illnesses are, and what they really feel like.

It trivializes and erases the very real, very human struggle of living life with a mental illness.

And when I see someone using the word “bipolar” as an adjective or, worse yet, as a buzz word for a flyer, I get angry. Because the only time we should use “bipolar” is when we’re talking about the disease and the real people who are impacted by it.

And as a graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where this flyer was carelessly plastered, I am ashamed.

I want to know why it was approved, because yes, all flyers require approval to be posted on our campus.

I want to know what the institution intends to do about it.

And most of all, I want a firm commitment, on the part of everyone involved, that there will NEVER be another flyer that upholds the stigma, stereotypes, and oppression of people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

The idea that any university would give the go-ahead to post flyers that effectively dehumanize their students with disabilities is unconscionable.

So unless you’re about to start saying “she’s so breast cancer!” or “he’s totally dementia,” I suggest you reconsider your word choice.

Take Action! Tweet the UM-D Chapter of Ratio Christi; respectfully let them know that their flyer is problematic, and does not align with their claims of “engaging with integrity” and “moral character.”

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

28 thoughts on “For the Last Time: Mental Illnesses Are Not Adjectives

  1. Laura L. says:

    Nobody, including me, has quite figured out yet if I’m bipolar (if I am it is type 2 and probably rapid cycling). I say that because I want to state that I have a pony in this show. I’m so torn as to how militant I want to be about just the things you’ve written about here. I’ve seen “action” blogs that get upset if people say things like, “Oh, that’s just crazy talk.” I think we need to cut people a little more slack than that.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t agree with you more. Another thing about throwing around things like bipolar (I don’t see it done with “depressed” in quite the same way but see it with “schizo”) as an adjective is that it makes people who need help less likely to seek it.

    I know in my instance I have admitted to a lot of things but it has only been just recently that I’ve said to selective people, I *might* be bipolar. I emphasize might. Who wants to be labelled and worse, dismissed, as “nuts”? When “she’s so bipolar” is a slur and a description as you are discussing, it just makes the stigma that much worse.

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I think the reason I am coming across here as not “cutting much slack” is because I’ve encountered this time, and time, and time again. I’m really exhausted. This is something that I see and hear constantly. After a point, I don’t know, it’s difficult not to be angry.

      Every time I’ve tried to address this, I’ve been met with resistance, no matter how sugary sweet I am when I try to open up the dialogue. That goes for many of the topics I talk about here at LQTU. Ultimately, if people spent more energy accepting this as a reality and listening to the people impacted, and less energy going on the defensive and invalidating the existence of this problem, the world would be a much better place.

      It’s especially frustrating when it’s plastered all over a college campus, and when it’s an organization that is supposed to be welcoming to all students. It’s also frustrating when there is, essentially, no accountability; there was no action that I know of on the part of the administration to make it clear that they don’t condone this. So this is part of a larger issue for me. This is part of campus climate, and about students with disabilities feeling safe and included on the campus. These flyers are everywhere. This has a serious and insidious impact.

      I agree that it can be a huge deterrent in seeking help. If it is portrayed as something undesirable and terrifying, constantly cast in a negative light, no one will want to seek help, for fear of being labeled as something that acts as a “mark of shame” for the indefinite future.

      No one wins when we use these illnesses as adjectives. No one. I don’t understand why this is still considered a contentious issue. Even if you personally aren’t impacted, it’s hurting people. So stop. You know? It’s so simple.

      Anywho, thanks for the feedback. The “take action” part of this was in no means meant as a way to encourage people to be aggressive or disrespectful. I wanted to give others an option to weigh in if that’s what they wanted to do.

      If you do end up with a diagnosis of bipolar, let me be the first to say, welcome to the club. At least we’re on the same team!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Summer Moon says:

    This is such a great post! Thank you for bringing more attention to this, as so many people just don’t understand this. Although, as you say, this should be already “common knowledge.” I appreciate the link to my article on the issue too. People need to understand and stop being insensitive, either purposefully or unknowingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Yes, absolutely! You’re so welcome. I wanted to make sure I also brought some visibility to the bloggers who have already tackled this. It’s so strange to me that we’re still having this conversation.

      Like

  3. ginger says:

    You do realize that bipolar can mean
    “having or marked by two mutually repellent forces or diametrically opposed natures or views”
    which is the first definition. It also relates to magnetism. Glancing at the picture this would make much more sense since it a reconciliation of the differing attitudes people have towards the God in the new and old testament. I could be entirely wrong because the way the word is used, but I highly doubt a religious group would joke about their God having a disorder….
    This almost makes me want to rant about people being presumptuous.

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      First of all, unless you belong to some culture outside of the Western world, the most common usage of the word “bipolar” is in reference to this illness. That’s not a wild assumption – that is a reality in this society.

      There’s this magical thing called “synonyms” that we rely on to ensure that we aren’t perpetuating harmful stereotypes. It doesn’t kill anyone to use them. If the context makes it unclear, it’s not difficult to change the wording.

      If you ask the layperson what “bipolar” means, they will refer to the illness. So regardless of what the intention was, it still impacts the community that has close ties to that word.

      If your complaint is that I made an assumption about a flyer, you’ve missed the larger point being made in the article. Mental illnesses shouldn’t be used as adjectives regardless of the intention and regardless of what they thought they were conveying by using it.

      Sorry if that’s a big ol’ inconvenience for you, or a little too “PC” for you.

      And if we want to talk about being presumptuous, saying that a religious group couldn’t POSSIBLY use the word “bipolar” in reference to their God having an illness isn’t any better than the assumptions I’ve made here. It is similarly presumptuous.

      And as it turns out, YOUR assumption is the false one here. LQTU has sources who spoke with the leader of this organization. He “didn’t realize” talking about the disorder that way was offensive. So it turns out that my “assumption” wasn’t so far off after all.

      Feel free to write your own rant about being presumptuous, though. You’re the expert.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beth says:

    People love to zero in on the word “bipolar” because it can have alternate meanings. But the point of this article is that mental illness in general shouln’t be used as an adjective. Bipolar isn’t the only word used this way. Please enlighten me on the alternate meaning of “OCD” or “ADD” as an adjective. There’s a reason ADD is considered a joke, and part of that reason is because so many people say “i was so ADD trying to read that book. It’s so boring I couldn’t concentrate!” Or when that awesome post goes around tumblr and facebook titled “How OCD are you?” with pictures of things out of place and everyone comments “THIS BUGS ME SO MUCH IM SO OCD”. Do they forget that “disorder” is part of those acronyms? What we should all be taking away from Sam’s article is that there are a million other words to choose from, can we please just reserve the mental illness synonyms for talking about actual illnesses?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Laiyla Lane says:

    Hear, hear! People who use mental illnesses as trendy buzz word are totally insensitive and it is one of my pet peeves seeing as I have Bipolar Disorder myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Del says:

    Reblogged this on Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars and commented:
    Ugh. I know I’ve ranted about this before, and I’ll likely do it again. Being tidy and deriving enjoyment out of deep cleaning or organizing is not “OCD”. Having unpredictable mood swings is not “bipolar” (unless these “mood swings” cause you to engage in harmful behavior or rob your ability to function). Being in mourning after a loved one dies or one learns of a terminal illness isn’t the same as Major Depressive Disorder. And really, really wishing you had seven imaginary friends, including your first D&D character and someone from Harry Potter, doesn’t give you Dissociative Identity Disorder.

    What separates people who experience average emotional peaks and valleys and those who are mentally ill is the ability to function through, or in spite of, these emotional states. Secretly, I’m not 100% sold on the idea that mental illness necessarily have a neurologically centered chemical imbalance, but I do think that some medications can be helpful. However, no amount of medicine can cure you from what is honestly “being a human being with emotions”.

    But please, for me, stop using these diagnoses as adjectives.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. dbp49 says:

    A great article Sam. I would like to think it was just inexperience on the part of the poster-makers, but even that doesn’t really excuse it since by the time they’re in college you would think they’d be a little more worldly-wise, and I’m not saying that to be insulting, since I myself am a Christian, and I’m not taking offense at their very immature, and somewhat disrespectful use of our Savior’s Name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I definitely agree that this comes from a lack of understanding, and not malicious intent. I hope that the push back allows them to reflect a bit more on this. College is a great time for growth and I think this can be a good moment for that. Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  8. Jesus Freak says:

    Dude,

    Bipolar is an adjective that is used in many contexts with a meaning independent of any mental illness. My battery is bipolar, the earth is bipolar. Get a grip.

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Dude,

      This is an article about mental illness, not about the earth, not about batteries. What exactly is your point?

      What we’re discussing here is when people describe things as “bipolar,” as in the disorder, using the illness as an adjective. For instance, if I’m happy one minute, sad the next, and tell you, “Ugh! I’m so bipolar today!” That’s a misuse of the word, and it creates misunderstandings around what this illness is.

      We’re talking about incorrect uses of a word and comparisons to an illness that are not accurate.

      I am not talking about other definitions of bipolar. If you’re being scientifically accurate and it’s clear contextually how you’re using the word, I don’t care, and neither do the vast majority of folks with these illnesses.

      I’m talking about the misuse of the word “bipolar” to compare things to the disorder when they aren’t accurate comparisons.

      We’re talking about people claiming things, places, moods, or behaviors are “bipolar,” evoking confusion around what this disorder actually looks like because people use the word incorrectly and in frivolous ways.

      In the context of this article, saying God is bipolar because he’s moody or volatile or inconsistent is, again, an inaccurate and problematic use of the word.

      When you’d like to join us in that discussion, you’re welcome to do so.

      Like

  9. Jesus Freak says:

    People get colds – an illness, yet items can still be described as cold. You can’t appropriate an existing word for a particular illness and then ban its use in all other contexts.

    Like

  10. Jesus Freak says:

    Your error is in the assumption that anyone is claiming that God has a mental illness. Not possible. The comparison was never to ascribe a mental illness as pertaining to God. The talk which you so readily condemned has nothing to do with any medical condition.

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      When the person who created the flyer wants to contact me about their intention, we’ll talk then about “assumptions.” Notice how that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe because they, like most reasonable folks, can understand why this is problematic.

      I’m pretty sure it’s not far-fetched to say that, when you describe a human being or a human-like-entity as “bipolar,” the immediate response that is evoked is the meaning associated with the disorder. And that has a negative impact, whether it’s intended or not. We’re not talking about intent in this article. We’re talking about impact, in the real world, in our society, where bipolar has a VERY specific meaning and affects a marginalized and stigmatized group.

      But again, I think you missed the point. Maybe a good reread will help.

      Like

  11. mulan92 says:

    In Poland where I live you can also hear people mentioning the names of mental illnesses in such shitty ways. E.g. saying they are schizophrenic when they behave different than usually because schizophrenia to their minds is always and necessarily about strange behaviour, or delusions, or having multiple personalities (I don’t know where that comes from). Or calling a period of low mood depression. Ugh. The name bipolar isn’t so widely misused here, and I guess that’s because there is less awareness of the very fact that there is such a disorder. Most of the people that I heard misusing this name didn’t even know the Polish name (which is different than bipolar) and said “bipolar” instead. All of this gets on my nerves so much, and I hear such shit even from people at the uni I attend, and on the radio! This is so sad.
    Keep writing like this.
    xxx
    Mulan

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Thanks so much for the cross-cultural perspective here! It’s so interesting (and sad) to hear that this happens quite similarly in other parts of the world. It’s widespread, so when possible, we have to call it like we see it! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

      Like

Comments are closed.