Decreasing Bipolar Stigma, One Word at a Time

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How many people reading this now who are being treated for bipolar disorder have experienced stigma, which is defined as a mark of disgrace, shame, or humiliation? How many of you have a loved one who receives treatment for bipolar disorder and have seen him or her subject to stigma?

Living With the Stigma

Stigma surrounding the treatment of psychiatric illness is one of the greatest challenges we face as a community if we wish to have the most mentally healthy community members we possibly can.

Why? Because stigma does a great many things—all of them negative. One of the main ways it hurts people who have yet to be diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, but may be experiencing profound symptoms, is that because they fear the shame of stigma, they may avoid evaluation and treatment.

Another important way in which stigma affects people who receive mental health treatment is that it promotes ignorance. Because it is by definition associated with shame and embarrassment, it promotes the uninformed and incorrect view that people who are diagnosed with psychiatric illness are weak, or that they ought to be embarrassed. Those of us with any knowledge about mental health at all, know that this could not be further from the truth—that bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders are medical illnesses, just like pneumonia is a medical illness. Shame should have no place in illness.

Unfortunately, even doctors are not immune to stigmatizing people receiving treatment for bipolar disorder or other psychiatric illness, as demonstrated in a 2013 study.

Preferred Mental Health Language

We know that stigma is all around. The words we use to describe psychiatric illness and persons receiving treatment for psychiatric illness have been demonstrated to play a large role in perpetuating stigma, particularly when words or phrases are used commonly by the media.

The American Psychiatric Association released preferred language for discussing and writing about people who receive mental health services. The preferred language is based on the importance of using “person first” language, emphasizing that a person’s illness does not define him or her.

Preferred language                                         Instead of

She is a person who receives help/treatment for mental health or substance use problem or a psychiatric disability

She is a patient

He is a person with a disability

He is disabled/handicapped

She is a child without disabilities

She is normal

He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder

He is living with bipolar disorder

He is (a) bipolar

She has a mental health problem or challenge

She is a person with lived experience of a mental health condition

She is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/ psycho/insane/lunatic

He has a brain injury

He is brain damaged

He experiences symptoms of psychosis/He hears voices

He is psychotic

She has an intellectual disability

She is mentally retarded

He has autism

He is autistic

Is receiving mental health services

Mental health patient/case

Attempted suicide
Died by suicide

Unsuccessful suicide
Committed suicide

A student receiving special education services

Special education student

Person with substance use disorder
Person experiencing alcohol/drug problem

Addict, abuser, junkie

Experiencing, or being treated for, or has a diagnosis of, or a history of, mental illness

Suffering with, or a victim of, a mental illness

Let’s try to keep an eye out for “person first” language. How does it make you feel? If you think it is destigmatizing, join me encouraging doctors, the media, and each other to come around to using this language!