Why We Need to Stop Using ‘Bipolar’ As An Adjective

This word doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means.
June 24, 2019
9 mins read

The word “bipolar” is being used too often to describe a person who can’t make up their mind or goes quickly from being happy to sad.

I’ve heard people, including weather forecasters, describe the weather as bipolar. There are even songs that use the word as an adjective, misinforming whoever listens and detracting from it real meaning.

We as a society need to stop using the word bipolar as an adjective to describe situations of people who are “hot and cold.”

The definition of bipolar should be taken seriously, and here’s four reasons why: 

1. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness and should be treated as such.

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, which affects around 5.7 million adults in the U.S. and 60 million people worldwide. There are four types of the disorder, each of which varies in severity and causes periods of euphoria and high energy, called manic episodes, followed by periods of low mood and energy levels, called depressive episodes. 

Because the condition is a serious disorder that deeply affects people and those close to them, it shouldn’t be thrown around as an adjective. Telling someone, “The weather is so bipolar” or “My mom yelled at me and then acted like nothing happened — she’s bipolar!” hurts people who actually have the illness. Those suffering from the illness hardly benefit from having its name tossed around so trivially, and so negatively.

2. When public figures use the term as an adjective, they’re misinforming anyone who listens.

The media, in general, have an incriminating track record of misusing the word bipolar, but perhaps no party is as guilty of the offense as the music industry. For example, in her 2008 song “Hot N Cold,” Katy Perry describes a mercurial ex lover as “hot” then “cold,” “yes” then “no,” “in” then “out” and finally “up” then “down,” before shouting, “Someone call the doctor / got a case of a love bipolar.”

The lyric, and many others like it, enforce the false belief that bipolar disorder is nothing more than an outsized form of indecision.  Even though the song came out 11 years ago and mental health awareness has since improved, people are still listening to the track and internalizing its definition of the disorder.

Another example is the song “Bipolar Baby!” by Forever The Sickest Kids, which came out in 2010. The whole song is about a girl that can’t make up her mind and has a moody personality.

Not only is it problematic that the band calls a girl bipolar for simply being moody, but the real definition of the disorder gets lost when the word is used as an adjective like this. Because of songs like these, where “bipolar” behavior is condemned as undesirable, people who may actually have bipolar disorder may be less likely to open up about their health and seek help.

3. If people who have the disorder hear the word being used so callously, they’re going to be hurt

I know firsthand how devastating bipolar disorder is, and to hear the word used to describe such trivial situations is frustrating. The way the disease takes over someone’s life and being helpless to stop it is nothing short of awful.

Bipolar disorder results in a 9 to 20 years reduction in expected lifespan, and as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder complete suicide. It is also the sixth leading cause of disability in the world. Imagine if someone was going through the effects this disorder and heard the term bipolar used to describe the weather. It would hurt to have something that’s caused you so much pain to be trivialized, right?

You would think that because millions of people have bipolar disorder, those who don’t have it would be more cautious with their words. However, using “bipolar” as an adjective is no different than using OCD or ADD as adjectives. People don’t understand how harmful these comparisons can be to those who have to deal with the ramifications of their condition every day.

4. There are plenty of other adjectives to use in place of the word “bipolar.”

If you need to define the behavior of someone whom you see acting irrationally or whose mood seems to be changing quickly, find a word that doesn’t also refer to an illness. Don’t use the word “bipolar” for anything or anyone, and especially do not use it as an insult. There are other adjectives, such as wishy-washy, unreasonable, rash, finicky and more, that could describe the situation you are observing and would communicate what you mean more effectively.

It’s easy for a word that may seem innocuous to go unnoticed in our vocabulary, especially if we use it on a regular basis. However, the lack of education surrounding bipolar disorder does not excuse how often it’s misused. In 2019 and especially going forward, mental health awareness should be at a point where people know not to use the names of serious mental illnesses as adjectives in every-day conversation. We need better education and less stigma surrounding mental illness, so unless you are discussing the actual disorders, people should remove “bipolar” and other words, such as OCD and ADD, from their vocabulary.

This problem is not solely about being offended or sensitive regarding every little thing people say; it’s about stigma and the bad reputation bipolar disorder has because of how it is used. If the word “cancer” was used to describe minor situations or insult people on a regular basis, cancer patients would be upset just like people who have bipolar disorder surely are.

For whatever reason, it’s become commonplace to use the term as an adjective in everyday conversation, even by influential public figures, and it needs to stop. Using “bipolar” as an adjective is hurtful to people who have bipolar disorder and experience the symptoms that include a heightened risk of suicide.

If you’re ever tempted to describe anything or anyone as bipolar, please think twice and remember the real definition of the term as a mental illness that affects millions of people. Think about how your use of the word might hurt someone who has the disease, and find a different adjective for what you’re trying to describe.




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