Mental Disorders are NOT Adjectives

One minute, my mom was yelling at me; the next, we were out getting ice cream! She is so bipolar!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.com

What is the problem with this sentence? I personally am a grammar nut, but a hint is that it would be easily overlooked. I’ll give you a second… Here’s the answer: the word “bipolar” is being used as an adjective. 

This language is very problematic. You wouldn’t want someone calling you crazy or psycho, so why would you want to call someone bipolar?

I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder about a year ago. It wasn’t a scary experience; it was an explanation of why I am easily irritated and impulsive. But I was told those things were caused by depression and anxiety. I should also note that I am a cisgender, bisexual, white woman. Why am I mentioning this? Because women are experiencing a diagnosis delay of 11 years. The initial symptoms are misdiagnosed as a general mental illness (i.e. major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder). 

I have changed my medications so many times. I was put on an antidepressant that stopped working, so then I had to switch to another one. Then I had to be put on an extreme mood stabilizer to calm my manic episodes down. A sleeping aid was then added to my dish of pills. Why the hell was none of it working? Because they didn’t know I had bipolar II. 

My persistence in getting evaluated for bipolar disorder led me to my diagnosis. I made my therapist give me the evaluation laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). As my therapist was hearing my responses, her eyes widened. “You have bipolar II,” she said to me.

Aha! So that’s why nothing was working. 

This isn’t just an issue of misdiagnosis. It is also an issue of gender. While I am not to discount the validity of bipolar diagnoses in men, women experience the effects of the disorder and its repercussions differently.

Women experience bipolar disorder differently due to their reproductive cycles and hormones. Between 44-65% of women with bipolar disorder have mood changes related to their menstrual cycle. Women with bipolar disorder are also at a higher risk for alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. 

Societally, women are more likely to face stigma, a sense of a lack of self-control, being misunderstood by health professionals, and pressure to appear “normal.” How fair is it that men are allowed to be irritable, impulsive, and restless? The societal standards of women being kind and composed need to be broken. Quite frankly, this is bullshit!

So, the next time you think about calling your mom or your friend “bipolar,” remember the stigma that surrounds mental illness in women. Without my newfound knowledge of gender differences in women’s health care and in mental illness, it would have been impossible to see that my misdiagnosis was related to my gender. This realization has opened my eyes to how mental illness is a feminist issue, and how my story with bipolar disorder has been directly affected.

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