“I swear I’m bipolar this week”

I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I would write a comment oto an article by Robin Lee that appeared in the Huffington Post UK entitled, “Bipolar…. My Arse.” The article starts out like this:

“I shouted at you… because I’m Bipolar.”

“I murdered my kids… because I’m Bipolar.”

“I forgot to pay the gas bill… because I’m Bipolar.”

“I can’t help it… I’m Bipolar.”

All of the above statements are ridiculous, and all were used recently. I heard or read them. Being Bipolar is the latest must-have personality accessory. Robin Lee, Huffington Post UK, 19/09/2011

As most people reading this will be only too aware, forgetting to pay the gas bill, if you really do have bipolar, is not at all “ridiculous”. Being too depressed think about anything at all except whether and how to stay alive, or too (hypo)manic to be interested in domestic details, is totally consistent with having bipolar disorder. Similarly, most bipolar people have probably shouted at someone close to them in an irritated “up” phase or a despairing “low”. Murdering someone…. well, that’s rather more extreme, but I have no doubt at all that there are mentally disordered offenders in the prison or secure hospital system who committed grave deeds when very unwell with extreme depression, mania or psychosis. Sometimes, we do things we shouldn’t when we’re in the midst of an episode. Sometimes, especially if our treatment’s not going well, we can’t help it.

The trouble is, I don’t believe for a moment that most of the people that Lee is complaining about actually have bipolar. Lee says that he is tired of people employing “a medically recognised excuse for being mardy now and then [and] wanting to deny responsibility for their questionable behaviour.” He believes that saying, “I have bipolar!” has become “the modern day adults’ equivalent of crying after getting caught stealing sweets on the way to school.” He likens over-diagnosis of the condition to over-prescription of benzodiazapines and hopes that “lazy diagnosis of bipolar disorder” will be dealt with by the medical profession in the same way. What he doesn’t do is present any evidence that the people he is talking to or reading about have actually been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at all.

Just as people say that they are “depressed” in circumstances where they are in fact experiencing minimal, transient low mood, it seems like people are starting to say that they are “bipolar” when they are nothing of the sort. Try doing a quick Twitter search for tweets featuring the word “bipolar”; here’s some I found earlier. I promise you all of these are genuine; I’ve removed the names to protect the guilty, but left the spelling and grammar as found:

“I dont care what anyone says everybody BIPOLAR one min u happy next thing you wanna kill somebody”

“I just realized how bipolar I am, cause just a minute ago I was pissed off now I’m the happiest person ever.”

“Feeling real Bipolar-ish right Now.”

“One minute you’re calling me ugly and the next your being all apologetic and calling me ‘babe’… that’s a serious case of bipolar mate!”

“I think I’m bipolar, I love you then I hate you.”

“I’m bipolar. There’s no real reasoning behind my demeanor sometimes.”


“When I see a hobo w/ window cleaner, I secretly hope they don’t offer to wash my car but then I’m offended when they don’t ask. How bipolar.”

“I swear I’m bipolar this week”

“I have not been bipolar for 48hours #progress

These quotes tell us a lot about how people are using the term in a non-clinical way. “Bipolar” is now being used to identify the unreasonableness of others, especially those who are inexplicably changeable or fickle (there were also lots of references to women [by men] and weather being “bipolar” in my sample; I didn’t bother to share, because they’re all pretty much the same). People are labelling themselves “bipolar” if they have very rapid mood changes, even if their moods are not at all outside the normal range (e.g. “pissed off” to happy, rather than despairing to elated). They’re also using the term to describe holding two contrary/opposing thoughts or feelings about something, which would be better described as being conflicted or ambivalent. It’s interesting to note that “being bipolar” is perceived as a state that people can move in and out of, sometimes through effort of will (like “being high maintenance”). There is nothing at all out of the ordinary about these people’s experiences, but they are choosing to label it as mental disorder.

People using the term in that way shouldn’t be surprised if Robin Lee sees them as “hypochondriacs and arseholes”. Lee says that when manic depression became bipolar disorder, it also became “the dream diagnosis” for this kind of attention-seeking person. But here’s where Lee has missed the point again: it’s not a “dream diagnosis”, because in many cases where it’s being used to justify behaviour, it’s not a diagnosis at all. It’s just plucking a word out of the media soup, based on a very hazy understanding of what it entails, and applying it to yourself anyway. People do it with all kinds of mental health conditions. They say stuff like, “I lost my glasses again, I think I have early onset Alzheimer’s!” or “Sorry, I just re-packed the suitcase, I’m a bit OCD about how the shirts are folded”. It’s true that bipolar is seen as a little more glamorous than some disorders, partly thanks to its association with a number of famous and creative names. Among the general public, it certainly has more of a cachet to it than, say, schizo-affective disorder. In using “bipolar” loosely, people are picking up on the changeability of the condition, while having little or no understanding of the key facts about the disorder. There is an evident lack of knowlegde of the depths and heights of mood in true bipolar; of the fact that most people’s mood phases last weeks or months, not minutes or hours; and of the fact that most bipolar people require major drug treatment in order to live anything like a normal life.

Lee expresses concern that people with serious mental health problems “now have to wait in a queue behind people who simply need to impart a reason to their friend as to why they lost their rag at a taxi rank during her hen night.” Well, I don’t know about you, but last time I was up at the Community Mental Health Team, I failed to notice hoards of normals queuing up to get “bipolar” entered on their psychiatric file as this season’s must have diagnosis. Most of the people waiting to see the psychiatrist looked… well, pretty mentally unwell, actually.

Here’s my suggestion, brought to you courtesy of Bipolar Awareness Week. Next time someone tells Robin Lee that they’ve behaved badly because they have bipolar disorder, why doesn’t he ask them when they were diagnosed? If the answer’s, “Oh, I haven’t, but I’m very creative and volatile” or “last year, when I did a questionnaire on the internet”, then that person is misusing the word and doing a disservice to the 1% of people who are struggling with a chronic, debilitating illness. Maybe Lee could do the bipolar community a favour, and tell them so.

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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22 Responses to “I swear I’m bipolar this week”

  1. JuliesMum says:

    Liked this post very much – I do agree that it’s a trick of the language. I’ve noticed a similar tendency for the terms “autistic” or “Aspergers” (as in Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism) getting sucked into popular speech. It can be very grating for sufferers of a condition (and notice how the Spastic Society had to abandon their name eventually). I really loved the image of “normals” queuing up to get their must-have diagnosis at the psychiatrist!

  2. Viv says:

    Oh my giddy aunt!!!
    I cannot believe this. I have been aware of this happening but hoped it was just me being over sensitive.
    I’ve often said we need a new word for depression because it has been hijacked for other uses, but now bipolar as well?
    I had a hellish night as a result of the very lowest dose of a med used to treat it (I was given it as a treatment for migraine) and cannot imagine having to continue with it to combat an illness that debilitates beyond belief. So how can people cheapen suffering in this way?
    Oh yes, that’s because people are generally really rather stupid and crass.

    • Ridiculous, isn’t it? Particularly depressing was the use of it to be sexist, i.e. “females are so bipolar, why can’t they just make up their minds”? Not the most heart-warming Twitter search I have ever done 😦

  3. maddie50 says:

    Excellent article. I do work with people who have committed serious offences and are bi polar and the thought of the term being used in so light hearted a way really upsets me. As pointed out “autism” and “depression” have been minimised and mainstreamed and I remember when it was very fashionable to be “schizo”. No one wants to be labelled but a label has its uses for signposting treatment options. A label is not a must have accessory like a designer handbag or perfume.

  4. David says:

    Superb article once again. Beautifully written and very cogently argued. The way the public uses terms differently to the medical profession does (for me) make it difficult to explain why I have been hospitalised for 9 weeks. For me to say I have depression and anxiety to people who don’t appreciate that the clinical end of the spectrum is nothing like the labels they use is hard. Fortunately my friends knew my behaviour before the ‘label’ so appreciate what it means.

  5. Great response on behalf of the true bipolar community to a real issue. A number of us have been frustrated by the celebrities treated for bipolar by a ‘trip to Thailand’, a ‘week’s respite before shooting two films’, ‘medication that makes you appear pissed on This Morning’ …… and the subsequent increase in attendees at GP surgeries of self diagnosed manic depressives.

    I wouldn’t wish this illness on my worst enemy. There’s a reason it has such a high suicide rate and to belittle or glamorise it is to under-estimate how devastating it’s effects can be.

  6. showard76 says:

    Love this, brilliant writing! Although in some ways I kind of LMAO at non-diagnosed people claiming to be bipolar/OCD etc – you don’t see anyone proclaiming they have BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) to excuse their idiosyncrasies – just goes to show bipolar is a far more ‘acceptable’ diagnosis in the public eye! Mention BPD however and the run for the hills!!

  7. Sarah Finnigan says:

    “…On top of this, worst and most pernicious of all, is the stigma that goes with mental illness. It is bad enough to be afflicted by a condition that destroys the ability to find savour, pleasure, joy, energy, purpose or hope in life without being stared at, mocked or dismissed as some kind of freak, weirdo, social misfit or fraudulent hypochondriac.” – Stephen Fry.

    Absolutely agree – I’ve only been diagnosed for a couple of years and before I was the idea that I might be bipolar did not even occur to me – Because unfortunately I did not have the understanding about it. Still find it difficult to talk about for fear of being judged as a hypochondriac or attention seeker! Hopefully with awareness more people will understand that bipolars are not looking for attention! Just understanding and a little assistance now and then.

  8. The daft-est thing about all this is that it’s still not ‘cool’ or even acceptable to actually have a mental health condition despite the popularity of such terms. 😉

  9. Emma says:

    I agree – and think this relates to a whole range of mental health conditions. You’ve highlighted how sadness and depression are often conflated, and I think it also happens with conditions like eating disorders. ‘Anorexic’ for example, is used as an adjective for everything from being health-conscious to literally starving. Obviously, there’s a big difference. The difficulty comes because some mental health problems do exist on a spectrum – making clear-cut diagnoses difficult. In addition such diagnoses are always loaded – on the one hand they can give us access to help, whilst on the other they exclude us from normal life.

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  11. I get so offended when people use the word “bipolar” to describe how they feel. It’s not an adjective, it’s a medical term. Makes me so upset to see it used that way.

  12. Lydia says:

    I totally agree with everything said above, but I wondered what your thoughts are on the milder form of Bipolar, Cyclothymia, within the context of all of this? My psychiatrist is getting close to possibly diagnosing me with this (although this is a very long winded process), and describes it as ‘the grey area’ between clinically ‘normal’ and ‘bipolar’ which strikes me as a pretty dangerous place to be… perhaps looked down upon by both bipolar and ‘healthy’ folk. There are definitely liberties being taken by attention seekers wearing fake designer b-p labels, and also over flippant uses of the term in everyday conversation. I guess I just wanted to point out that Cyclothymia, with its inherent rapid cycling, is pretty tricky to diagnose and perhaps SOME of the fore-mentioned people, who behave erratically at times but not in the classic b-p way, do in fact have a milder version of it. Are they at risk of prejudice from both mental health ‘non-believers’ and those with more clearly defined conditions?

    • Hi Lydia, I really don’t think any of the young people (and it was mostly young people) in my random tweet sample geniunely thought they had a mental health problem. The tone was very much along the lines of how someone might say, “I’ve been sleeping all day and now I’ m awake all night! I swear I’m a vampire!” I didn’t include any of the tweets where I thought someone was genuinely questioning their mental health and/or asking for help/advice. I seriously doubt that attention-seekers would queue up to get a cyclothemia label either (too hard to pronounce for a faker, for one thing!). The key thing is – well, does a professional agree you have a problem? Clearly, your psychiatrist does. Clearly, most of the kids in the sample were just being teenagers!

  13. Excellent post and a great blog

  14. Cheryl Prax says:

    BTW ‘Bipolar’ is not a ‘diagnosis’ but a ‘consensus’ by psychiatrists. They sit round a table and decide what symptoms they are going to bunch together and what to call them. Is is not scientific. It is led by pharmaceutical companies.

    • Hi Cheryl, I have explored the issue of what a diagnosis actually means in MH several of my other posts. To a certain extent, this is true of all illneasesses, physical or mental – the medical profession decide to take a group of troubling or life-threatening symptoms, and call them a disease/condition/syndrome. This results in many health problems having labels bearing the name of the clinician who first identified them (e.g. Marfan Syndrome, Huntingdon’s diseaes, Asperger Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Tourette’s, etc). In some cases as medical science has progressed it has been possible to find definitive markers for a disease through blood tests, genetic testing, medical imaging, etc, but there are still many physical conditions which rely on a clinician looking at the presentation and seeing which of the largely descriptive dignostic criteria it meets. Just as there is disagreement about what schizophrenia (for example) is, whether it is one or many conditions, whether it has physical causes (i.e. brain anomalies) or psychological ones, or whether indeed it exists at all; similar debates rage over ME/CFS. In other words, psychiatric diagnosis is neither more nor less scientific than any other branch of medicine, but is held back by the difficulties in investigating the vastly complex brain as compared to other organs which are simpler. There clearly is an issue with drug companies releasing drugs for problems which didn’t exist before the “solution”, but again this is the case in “new” bodily “ailments” (see “female sexual dysfunction”).

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  16. Robyn says:

    Excellent article regarding a super offensive HuffPo op-ed. I didn’t want the diagnosis when I got it. I thought I was just suffering from depression and good old collegiate burnout, and refused treatment until I was hospitalized and had to withdraw from school. Yeah, bipolar disorder sure is a fancy designer accessory to hitch on my belt.

    The ironic part is that despite the misuse of mental health terms and people self-diagnosing, in my experience most of them will still run for the hills if they find out you have a mental illness.

    • Hi Robyn, thanks for your comment an apologies that I’m late replying – struggling to keep up with blog stuff at the moment. I think are dead right, people who are happy to say “Oh, I’m like so bipolar” are much less tolerant of people who actually have the condition, take they heavy duty drugs, behave embarassingly or whatever. Wishing you all the best with managing your bipolar! 🙂

  17. butterflywgs says:

    Grrrrr. Yeah as you said above, I doubt any of those tweeters thought they genuinely had a mental illness. I think most were teenagers being, well, teenagers – a certain amount of mood lability and dramatism is to be expected. Some also sound like BPD traits – but again, most teenagers could be ‘diagnosed’ with that. It is a common but irritating misconception that those with bipolar have rapid mood changes, within minutes or hours!

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