10 things you should never say to someone with bipolar disorder
September 28, 2014 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Are you bipolar? This is a small thing, but there’s a little linguistic point to be made here. Referring to somebody as “bipolar” sort of insinuates that the only thing this person is is an illness. Their entire entity is just a disease. My surname is Parkinson so, can we not add to this, please? Rather, I think it is more polite to say someone “has bipolar” than “is bipolar”. You wouldn’t say that somebody “was cancer”. You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.” But people will talk of someone “being bipolar”.
posted by danabanana (108 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.”

I 100% agree with your primary point, but quibble with this peripheral one - - it is not uncommon to hear a person with diabetes being referred to as a diabetic.
posted by fairmettle at 7:36 AM on September 28, 2014 [51 favorites]


I took a psychology course at my local community college and the prof was adamant about making the point that you shouldn't refer to someone as "a schizophrenic", you refer to them as a "person with schizophrenia" or "a human being with schizophrenia". Teacher was cool.

Nice post with bonus Stephen Fry pics.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:37 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


As someone whose wife has bipolar disorder (and, bonus, one of my dearest friends too), this whole list.

And ugh, lithium. It works wonders for friend. My wife, on the other hand... ask me about lithium toxicity. If only there was the One True Magic Drug for mental health issues (or any other medical issue) that everyone seems to think there is.
posted by joycehealy at 7:39 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


This seems to me to be overreading what is simply a rather meaningless linguistic quirk. I "am asthmatic," I "am" also myopic etc. No one is inclined to think that asthma is somehow inherent to my identity because of the fact that English happens to allow one to say "you are asthmatic" as well as allowing the formation "you have asthma." The reason people suspect that people with bipolar disorders are somehow defined by those disorders is because of our stupid attitudes towards mental illness, not because of the grammatical quirks of how we talk about those orders. You can't say "you are Downs syndrome" but that doesn't mean there is some stunning perceptual divide between social attitudes towards kids with Down's syndrome and kids with other disorders that do allow for such a grammatical formation.
posted by yoink at 7:40 AM on September 28, 2014 [79 favorites]


The reason people suspect that people with bipolar disorders are somehow defined by those disorders is because of our stupid attitudes towards mental illness, not because of the grammatical quirks of how we talk about those orders.

But how we talk about things shapes thought. If we can emphasize, through language choices, that bipolar disorder is a disease and not a fundamental part of personality, we can make it easier to see person-with-a-disease as opposed to walking-disease.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:46 AM on September 28, 2014 [32 favorites]


it is not uncommon to hear a person with diabetes being referred to as a diabetic.

That's not the same thing linguistically as saying "She's bipolar." The comparison would be to saying "She's bipolaric" -- it changes it from just the name of the disease to a noun for a person who has that disease.

It's interesting what diseases we use that construction for, and which ones (like bipolar) we do not.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:48 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Mental illnesses color our whole world. I have some, and when I think about them I think of them as essential traits, a part of my identity.

You don't just say that someone "has intelligence" or "has courage." We say they "are intelligent" and "are courageous."

What we now have good reason to believe is that both virtues and vices are a product of our brains and environment. So you're coming as close as you can to describing a person when you attribute these features to them. The alternative is to say that there's nothing you or I *are* at all.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


This seems to me to be overreading what is simply a rather meaningless linguistic quirk.

I was thinking the same thing as I read the article, but then, there's a lot of "rather meaningless linguistic quirks" out there that hurt people's feelings needlessly -- e.g., the debates over "trans" vs. "trans*" vs. "transfolk" or the century-plus history of what to call persons of relatively recent African descent. If we can avoid making someone feel bad by not saying "That person is bipolar," then it's a pretty low bar for us to try to get over.

That's the point of articles like this one (despite the "never say" framing) -- it's not "People who say this are horrible people," it's "Hey, here's a thing you might not have thought about and how other people perceive it."
posted by Etrigan at 7:52 AM on September 28, 2014 [18 favorites]


But how we talk about things shapes thought.

Only superficially and makes it appear that the problem has been solved (e.g. all the people who think racism is in the past). I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the linguistic dimension, only that making a big deal out of it isn't much help.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:54 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


As someone with mental illnesses, gonna have to disagree with you there, Obscure Reference.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:57 AM on September 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


My reaction to so-called person-first language is very different—and I say this as someone who has been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and also someone who studies psychiatric disorders for a living. The logic of person-first language is that it "demonstrates respect for people with disabilities by referring to them first as individuals, and then referring to their disability when it is needed” (Blaska, 1993).

But it's an interesting logic indeed. For me, something other than exclusivity gets communicated by the insistence that someone is not 'bipolar' but rather 'a person with bipolar,' or that someone is not 'paraplegic' but rather 'a person with paraplegia.' It seems to me that what gets communicated is that the substratum of personhood is precisely not to have bipolar disorder or paraplegia—that what it means to be a person, first and foremost and prior to any differences, is to not have any so-called defects.

Notice also that we only insist on—indeed, discuss in the first place—person-first language with respect to ostensibly negative traits. No one would ever describe someone as, say, a "person with smartness" rather than a "smart person." Likewise, no one would ever say (and, indeed, I suspect it would strike most people as entirely execrable to say) that someone is "a person with Asianness/Blackness/Whiteness" or "a person with gayness/straightness/lesbianness."

There is an analogy, I think, with colorblindness. Colorblindness is execrable because it "[takes] the stance that we are all only human beings and our racial/ethnic differences should be de-emphasized or forgotten" (Grossman & Charmaraman, 2009). Colorblind ideology implicitly derogates the ideology of color blindness, because the desire to bury, avoid, or downplay racial and ethnic heritage is inherent therein. Colorblindness at its most pure is the idea that what it is to be a human being is to not have a race or ethnicity. Because the default race/ethnicity is White, this is de facto the ideology that to be human is to be White, and to be anything else is to deviate from the basic category of the human.

Likewise, and again, let me stress that I'm saying this as someone in the trenches in multiple senses, my own personal preference is to reject language and ideology that implies that what it is to be a person is, at root, to not have or be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. In basic terms of lifetime prevalence this is questionable, and in basic terms of humanism it is unacceptable. The search for the perfect euphemism is not going to make stigma go away, and while I agree that language can influence attitudes, I think that the implications of the language we use are not always easy to grasp and are often larger than we may suspect.
posted by mister-o at 7:58 AM on September 28, 2014 [64 favorites]


Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?
posted by Segundus at 8:00 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the linguistic dimension, only that making a big deal out of it isn't much help.
This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal. ”It” is in the everyday. ”It” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”It” happens when you expect it the most. ”It” is a reminder of your difference. ”It” enforces difference. ”It” can be painful. ”It” can be laughed off. ”It” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”It” can silence people. ”It” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”It” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
posted by Etrigan at 8:00 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's always useful to have a reminder that the things we say matter. Far better to have the things we say be kind and thoughtful, than be needlessly cruel just to make a linguistic point.
posted by arcticseal at 8:07 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Sometimes it's better shoved in your face than hidden by people treating you weirdly but pretending it's for some other reason. Racism is a fine example because it's rampant yet now even the code words are hidden behind meta code words.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:08 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's not the same thing linguistically as saying "She's bipolar." The comparison would be to saying "She's bipolaric"

As far as I can tell, "bipolaric" is not a word; "bipolar" is already an adjective. The noun (phrase, but this is ultimately not much of a distinction) is "bipolar disorder." Prescriptivists who apparently don't understand the first thing about the underlying language are a bit frustrating.

Also, yoink pretty much nails it.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:09 AM on September 28, 2014 [19 favorites]


Christ, I am assholic.
posted by hal9k at 8:09 AM on September 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?

The point isn't establish an inflexible rule then apply it mercilessly, the point is try to think about other people's experiences, and about how context colours actions, interactions, and expressions that would otherwise be benign.

ie. empathy and mindfulness.
posted by Mike Smith at 8:16 AM on September 28, 2014 [20 favorites]


Prescriptivists who apparently don't understand the first thing about the underlying language are a bit frustrating.

Okay. But word usage does matter, and continuing to refer to someone as (in this case) bipolar instead of person-with-bipolar-disorder can cause distress.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:16 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


OK, I get that people find "person first" language annoying, mostly, I think, because this is not how English normally modifies nouns. We say "That is a hungry cat," not "That is a cat with hunger," at least most of the time. However, it's also true that this particular grammatical feature does tend to reduce people to their (as mister-o points out, usually negative) traits. So it's a bit of a uphill battle, especially for the people most often defined this way. Also, I think there is the problem that, for most physical and mental conditions, there are sets of traits and behaviors that are common to the group but not necessarily present in any given individual -- so, it's entirely reasonable to say "depressives as a whole are like this," you have to keep in mind that any particular person with depression is an individual with their own situation, and that situation might (and probably does) present very differently than whatever aggregate idea of "depression" you might have (especially if you are not a mental health professional). See the mocking of the woman in the wheelchair standing to get something off a shelf discussed on the Blue recently -- being in a wheelchair does not necessarily mean what you think it means.

I sometimes wonder at the utility of lists like this -- does anyone read such a list and change their behavior? So many of the points amount to "don't be an asshole" or, more gently, "have some manners and don't presume." (Asking someone if they have taken their medication? Really? Unless you are that person's caregiver, WtF?) On the other hand, each point gets aggravating, especially in aggregate, and one should never underestimate the value of a good venting. And, I guess someone without that condition might get an answer and not blurt out a possibly-offensive question in their next interaction.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:17 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


continuing to refer to someone as (in this case) bipolar instead of person-with-bipolar-disorder can cause distress

Why? It's the natural and preferred construction in the language we're talking about, it's not at all unusual to hear, and it is absolutely not calling someone a disease. This is like crusading to make the word "pants" singular.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:19 AM on September 28, 2014 [11 favorites]


I'm not on board with much, but I'm on board with this. I agree with yoink, but outside perhaps what might be a meaningless linguistic quirk within the medical community, describing someone as bipolar is often on par with calling them crazy. And can be dismissive of a person's constitution in a qualitative way, often with a finality and fear that is designed to separate and is based on a lack of knowledge. We don't view people with diabetes as having poor character, or being defined solely by the metrics of their disease.

Again, the more you can do to raise awareness, treat sufferers with compassion, and find a solution to this condition, the better. If you don't agree with that well-established take, that happens to apply to a lot of medical afflictions, well, then you're definitely part of the problem.
posted by phaedon at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


We don't view people with diabetes as having poor character, or being defined solely by the metrics of their disease.

LOL
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:21 AM on September 28, 2014 [29 favorites]


For the reasons already outlined, one more deadtown's last parade, I'm not repeating myself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:21 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


> I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the linguistic dimension, only that making a big deal out of it isn't much help.

It is an article about language. I'm not certain of my own position on the matter as described in the article, but I do believe in not saying things that upset other people needlessly. It seems like a simple, polite thing to do.

The big deal you speak of is a function of your dwelling on the reasons it can be disagreed with, including the fact that it bothers somebody else more than it bothers you. The opposite of this big deal made of a choice in wording is to make no deal out of it. Efforts smaller than this op-ed in the FPP will simply be ignored as evidence the author is insufficiently serious about the issue for it to matter at all.
posted by ardgedee at 8:24 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Is "manic-depressive" disfavored for the same reasons?
posted by LogicalDash at 8:27 AM on September 28, 2014


I've always hated the term "bipolar" because any polar construct has two ends. It's redundant. I'd read about "monopoles" in Asimov's Gentlemen's Guide to Science in which a prefix made sense. And I didn't like it being a catch-all for moods and mania for which some subjectively worded criteria determined a pharmaceutical solution was warranted. I get mad thinking about it right now. So if people want to gripe about how this stupid term is applied, amen.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:27 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Is "manic-depressive" disfavored for the same reasons?

I think that was deprecated more because it's not necessarily an accurate picture for all forms of the disorder. 'Classic' bipolar disorder (Bipolar I) runs in the cycles most people would associate; but II and NOS (Not Otherwise Specified) don't necessarily have manic periods in the cycle.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:31 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


My diagnosis is for "Asperger's syndrome," but I describe myself as "autistic". I don't necessarily agree with the DSM-V reorganizing the spectrum that way, but I heard a few too many jokers talking about "ass burgers" and "spergs".
posted by LogicalDash at 8:32 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Certain illnesses - juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, allergies, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, severe, recurrent depression - imbue the person's life so deeply. A person who is pregnant, or a person with a treatable cancer is more than a person who is pregnant or a person who has cancer. They're in a similar position, though impermanent. I'm a person who is female, a person who has a child, a person with rheumatoid arthritis, a person with severe, recurrent depression. Also a person who dances, who is a member of Metafilter, a person with a dog. You can call me a woman, Mom, dancer, MeFite, dog owner. Once you have labelled me as a Mom, do you still see me as a person with many attributes? Once you have labelled me as a person who is white?

Labeling people as Black, when you don't label people as white is racist because it reinforces Black as other, and because it's often used to associate Black with crime and poverty. Mental illness is an illness, it's not standard (yeah, debatable some days). Like people who are all sorts of other things, it's a defining part f who you are, but it's not *all* you are. I think of Stephen Fry and I think of a large, disheveled, funny, interesting person who is gay, white, English and bipolar. It probably feels okay to say He's gay, because Gay Pride. Stephen, I promise that 'is bipolar' is only a facet of what I think about you.

I mostly think of, and say, has bipolar disease. I think of people as complex, and not entirely defined by any one of their traits.

I am unbelievably sick and fucking tired of lists of Things Not To Say To. Just try, really hard, not to be an asshole.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 AM on September 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


I'd add, as someone who's been there and back, so to speak, you become hyperensitive to linguistic quirks when in the grips of certain forms of mental illness. Your mind forces sinister meanings and significance onto the ordinary gaps in meaning you encounter in every day life. So things like this actually do matter to the people afflicted. But it really is just overthinking a linguistic fluke, from another POV.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:38 AM on September 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


I that new Roosevelt documentary I was surprised to learn that people who had contracted polio were referred to as "polios." It's relevant here, I think, because bipolar is an adjective in its other uses, but polio is a noun not easily confused with its victim, yet the two were conflated.
I don't know how terminology for mental illness will evolve, but I expect it will. I'm not sure that issues of stigma and respect are what will do it. My hunch is that while the stigmatizing and descriptive terms tied to these illnesses overtime were okay analogies to get the needed conversation going, they're not accurate enough to get us where we're headed next. People with depression aren't depressed in anything like a quotidian experience of being depressed can touch. The analogy is poor and obstructive so I think the word will change.
posted by putzface_dickman at 8:39 AM on September 28, 2014


I sometimes wonder at the utility of lists like this -- does anyone read such a list and change their behavior? So many of the points amount to "don't be an asshole" or, more gently, "have some manners and don't presume."

I see your point but I think sometimes people actually just don't realize that what they're saying is hurtful; I think this is more about getting people to be mindful of what they're saying because there are a lot of people who aren't bad or mean people, they're just thoughtless and they actually don't get that these specific things are unpleasant to hear because they just don't think.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:43 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


I write on health-related topics, and typically the way to describe these conditions in print is to say, "S/he is living with bipolar disorder" or "s/he is experiencing bipolar disorder."

Of course, the condition is only relevant if that is what is being discussed.
posted by Nevin at 8:44 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?

For what it's worth, back when it was relevant I would only ever say "I have depression", or even "I have Clinical Depression", and never "I am depressed". The latter sounds like maybe I was just sad or in a bad mood of some kind, whereas I had a clinically diagnosed and defined disease that made me unable to live a functional life. I wasn't even sad most of the time, occasionally angry, sometimes scared, often just nothing. Even now I would never describe myself as having been depressed because that doesn't feel accurate, whereas I did lose two years of my life to Depression, that stupid disease that took root in my brain for some stupid reason. Recognising the disease as something outside of me, something other that I could reject and get rid of, was an important part of my recovery in the end. I didn't really need other people disputing that with their lazy language choices.

So I have no problem with the premise put forward here. I'd argue that this linguistics quirk is a reflection of our attitude towards disease in general and mental illness in particularly rather than some meaningless thing inherent in the English language. Both of those factors should be able to be changed, so why not do the easy language one first while we also work towards a wider improvement of the shitty attitude underlying it.
posted by shelleycat at 8:44 AM on September 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


I have diabetes. I am diabetic. Taking into account the time, hassle, and expense that is involved in managing my diabetes, I would have no problem saying " I am diabetes ".
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:48 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Dip Flash: “It's interesting what diseases we use that construction for, and which ones (like bipolar) we do not.”

As many have said, it's not a "construction;" it's just using an adjective as an adjective. Bipolar isn't typically a noun; it's an adjective. But it was turned into a noun, apparently for convenience, since people I guess didn't want to go to the trouble of actually saying "bipolar disorder" and prefer to just call the disease "bipolar."

Maybe that's the problem. I suspect this issue would go away if people just stopped referring to it as "bipolar" altogether and insisted on calling it "bipolar disorder."
posted by koeselitz at 8:53 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Also, the describing word point is number one but the other points are also worth reading. I particularly liked this bit:
"Clinical depression, however, (whether unipolar or bipolar), is a devil that chews on bones and gorges on souls and should never be underestimated or undermined."
posted by shelleycat at 8:54 AM on September 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


I've always hated the term "bipolar" because any polar construct has two ends. It's redundant. I'd read about "monopoles" in Asimov's Gentlemen's Guide to Science in which a prefix made sense.

"Bipolar" isn't redundant in this context, because it's being used to differentiate this disorder from "monopolar" depression. When "bipolar" (as opposed to "monopolar") is used, it's to signify that mania or hypomania is also a component of the disorder being discussed.
posted by rue72 at 9:04 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


That's assuming there's a real issue which I don't think has been shown. Instead, this feels like the typical "progressive" language policing and nitpicking.
posted by rr at 9:05 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


The reason people suspect that people with bipolar disorders are somehow defined by those disorders is because of our stupid attitudes towards mental illness, not because of the grammatical quirks of how we talk about those orders.

... except, in saying, "I am a person with bipolar disorder," I am, via conscious grammatical quirk, helping you toward not seeing me as defined by that disorder (the "I am bipolar"option). Yeah, it's a little awkward and my inner creative will likely always see small quotes around it ... but then maybe such should be the case. Maybe awkwardness is exactly what should be communicated whenever the issue pops up, so it is noticed, not just shrugged aside as unimportant. Because based on the responses from many in this thread, it clearly is important.
posted by philip-random at 9:09 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


My husband has type 2 diabetes. It is jarring and unpleasant to hear him described as a diabetic.
As to bipolar, when you say someone is bipolar,the mental image that conjures up is pretty unpleasant. Even though the reality is that person could be and probably is a wonderful parent, spouse, friend, etc.

I am not offended by terms, but probably one way of description is more respectful than the other. Let us aim for respect, every time.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:13 AM on September 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?
In this particular instance a description of a temporary state of mind shares a term with a diagnosis.
posted by vapidave at 9:20 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Only superficially and makes it appear that the problem has been solved (e.g. all the people who think racism is in the past). I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the linguistic dimension, only that making a big deal out of it isn't much help.

This isn't a crusade to end all stigma against mental illnesses, this is one thing that you can do to not sound like callous and ignorant to many (but obviously not all) of the people you're talking to with or who have a loved one with the disorder. Personally, I think that referring to a person as a disorder is obnoxious and dehumanizing because the construction makes it sound like all of who the person is, is being reduced to this one disorder that they have. It essentializes the disorder. Using a people-first construction isn't going to End All Stigma, but it can get rid of this one obnoxious and dehumanizing interaction. Which personally, I absolutely wish to never hear again.
posted by rue72 at 9:20 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Many autistic people are very opposed to the "person-first" language, because "person with autism" makes it sound like autism is something that can be separated from the person rather than an integral part of them. There's no one-size-fits-all rule. If you have reason to refer to someone in the third person, maybe ask them what they prefer?
posted by Daily Alice at 9:22 AM on September 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?

We should say "so-and-so has depression." That's logistically necessary anyway, even aside from the people-first language idea, since "having depression" (i.e., having a mental illness called "depression") is different from "being depressed" (i.e., feeling bummed out) even colloquially.
posted by rue72 at 9:23 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Segundus: "Should we not say that someone is depressed, but that they are a person with depression disease?"

I don't think the "disease" label should be tacked on. Modern psychiatry doesn't have a firm grasp on the biological correlates of mental illnesses. And even if it did, the disease label needlessly emphasizes a biological-essentialist view (i.e., mental illness is purely a biological phenomenon), and de-emphasizes the situational aspects of mental illness. As an example of the situational aspects of mental illness that I'm referring to, the Rat Park studies (on drug addiction) are great.
posted by tybeet at 9:23 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


... except, in saying, "I am a person with bipolar disorder," I am, via conscious grammatical quirk, helping you toward not seeing me as defined by that disorder (the "I am bipolar"option).

I completely agree with you here and was responding more to all the people saying that we call someone bipolar rather than say they have bipolar disorder because it's just English blah blah. I don't think that using it the way you are outlining needs to be a quirk, it should be the default. Just like I always described myself as someone with depression rather than as someone who is depressed,
posted by shelleycat at 9:26 AM on September 28, 2014


Many autistic people are very opposed to the "person-first" language, because "person with autism" makes it sound like autism is something that can be separated from the person rather than an integral part of them.

Amen. "Person with autism" grinds my gears like very few other things can. But I think this is much more common in the Autistic community than in most other neuroatypical groups; of all the people I've known who had/have bipolar disorder, only one of them dislikes person-first.
posted by dorque at 9:33 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


When someone who is typically shit on by society says "You keep using that word in a way that hurts" there exists the possibility that your response could be to close your mouth, listen, and think "maybe they have a point".

Not that some of you might have ever considered that, which is I why I am mentioning it now.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:37 AM on September 28, 2014 [23 favorites]


When someone who is typically shit on by society says "You keep using that word in a way that hurts" there exists the possibility that your response could be to close your mouth, listen, and think "maybe they have a point".

Generally, though, if you are consistently telling native speakers that they are using their own language incorrectly, you should try to think about what you're misunderstanding.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:44 AM on September 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


I understand that no one likes to be labelled, but as an adult I also like to own my shit. I am fat and I am depressed but whether that defines me is up to me. Of course, that doesn't mean that I want other people calling me fat to my face and being labelled will definitely color how people perceive you and your actions but inside my head I want the warts-and-all description because it's accurate. The real issue here to my mind is just a question of politeness. Referring to a person as a thing or type can undermine their humanity.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:52 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I do not understand why people will argue so viciously for the right to be mean to other people.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:53 AM on September 28, 2014 [19 favorites]


I don't think that's what's going on here, exactly. The argument that "bipolar" is an adjective is an insensitive one to make, but also happens to be correct and relevant to the complaint in the FPP. I think it's best to approach loaded issues like that in a more circumspect way, but that's something I had to be taught. It's important, but it's not obvious.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:56 AM on September 28, 2014


Many autistic people are very opposed to the "person-first" language, because "person with autism" makes it sound like autism is something that can be separated from the person rather than an integral part of them. There's no one-size-fits-all rule. If you have reason to refer to someone in the third person, maybe ask them what they prefer?

Yes, I agree that there's *never* going to be a one-size-fits-all rule, because there can't be -- there are just too many people living in too many contexts, and it will always come down to doing what you this is right and playing the odds that the person you're speaking with will agree or be able to correct you if they don't. However, as I understand it, autism in particular is a special case because its lobby contains "cure" and "no cure" groups that are pitted against each other, which is unusual and which causes a lot of (political, intra-community) tension over whether to classify autism as a disorder for many in the first place (rather than a different way of thinking/perceiving/communicating/etc*).

I had thought that saying "autistic" rather than "has autism" was a political act, an attempt to reclaim the word "autistic" in order to reduce stigma against autism -- and that it had extra heat/controversy around it, because of people in the "cure" camp thinking that it was actually doing *too* good of a job at reducing stigma and was making people outside the autism community take autism less seriously as a disorder. The "autism" v. "has autism" issue has context surrounding it that makes it a special case and makes it impossible to use as a point from which to generalize about people-first language for other disorders. There is no sizable group similarly contesting whether bipolar disorder *is* a disorder and *should* be cured, so there's no sizable group similarly pushing back against person-first language in the context of bipolar disorder (as compared to the context of autism). Which is why people with bipolar are likely to prefer person-first language or be indifferent to it, rather than pushing *for* a grammatical construction that essentializes the disorder (i.e., "I am bipolar").

*The only "disorders" that I can think of that had that kind of split in their community were about gender or sexuality, like homosexuality. Which now *is* considered a difference rather than a disorder by the medical community (and by me personally, of course).
posted by rue72 at 9:56 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Generally, though, if you are consistently telling native speakers that they are using their own language incorrectly, you should try to think about what you're misunderstanding.

I like to believe the best in everyone, and that people are banging out things on the keyboard in good faith, but this comment seems rather mean-spirited.
posted by Nevin at 9:58 AM on September 28, 2014 [13 favorites]


Note to self: never be on the receiving end of a rather meaningless linguistic quirk.
posted by Namlit at 9:59 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's irregular for words to change their meanings when they change their part of speech, but common enough not to be a "quirk," I think. In high school I was involved with the school play as a tech, rather than an actor. I didn't tell my parents about this. When they heard I was involved I told them "Technically, I participated"; what I meant, it turned out, was "I participated technically."
posted by LogicalDash at 10:04 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Generally, though, if you are consistently telling native speakers that they are using their own language incorrectly, you should try to think about what you're misunderstanding.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:44 AM on September 28


Where is that being said? No one is saying that. What's being said is that, out of multiple "correct" ways of saying a thing, one of them is potentially harmful. Why or how is that not valuable information, especially if you're so concerned about how to use your language?
posted by Mike Smith at 10:06 AM on September 28, 2014 [8 favorites]



There have been other times when I've learned that the words used to describe or say something about particular people is upsetting to some of those people. Some of those times I've thought that it really doesn't seem to be a big deal or shouldn't be a deal because of X, Y or Z reason.

I made the decision to change the words because in whole scheme of my life, changing some words in order to not unintentionally upset people is not that big a deal and in many cases not worth arguing about.

For me I find it telling that I can't remember any specific words or phrases I have consciously changed as an example. I can only remember that I have made a personal decision to do it and did.

I expect this change will be added to the my future unremembered list as well.
posted by Jalliah at 10:14 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


The biggest problem with this kind of well-meaning or self-protective prescriptivism is that language has general conditions of applicability. You're not just telling me how to refer to you; you're telling me how to refer to everyone, including myself!

We are not talking about proper names, here, where everyone gets to choose their own. If there is division in a community about how they should be referred to, then the loudest voices will win.

This is indeed the case with both "person-first" and "conditions-not-essences" language prescriptions. Because they intend to speak not just for their own community but all of the communities, these prescriptions necessarily force us into overbroad generalizations about what is offensive and to whom. There are a number of communities where these constructions are actively disliked: the Deaf community, the "neurodiversity" community of Autistics and Aspergers's Sydrome, the addiction community, and large swathes of the more active schizophrenic and bipolar communities. For these groups, the person-first and condition-not-essence language prescription buys too heavily into the medical disease model; they hope instead to create communities based on their shared identities. That means actively "turning the term" and taking pride in their supposed disabilities.

Of course, this gets tricky: if one person denies that some of the worst terms of developmental disability are derogatory, they're just wrong. Precisely because language has that general condition of applicability, it doesn't really matter whether you're comfortable with those terrible terms: they're hurtful. But the reverse is also true: one can discover that one is personally offended by a monicker or construction, but that doesn't make it generally so.

All of which is to say: it's complicated. Don't assume that the progressive and caring thing is as obvious as a listicle makes it seem.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:32 AM on September 28, 2014 [32 favorites]


Because they intend to speak not just for their own community but all of the communities

Do they?

How did you know?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:34 AM on September 28, 2014


Because I RTFA'd.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:36 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I respect identity models. It's a discussion for the affected group to have amongst themselves. That doesn't preclude non-affected groups from listening to all sides of the discussion.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:36 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I do not understand why people will argue so viciously for the right to be mean to other people.

God, I get so sick of this reflexive straw man. No one is "arguing for the right to be mean" to anyone. No doubt I'll file the fact that using "bipolar" as an adjective offends some people with bipolar disorders and try to avoid using the term. The argument is about whether the particular grounds offered in the article for avoiding the term actually have any merit. That is, there is an inarguable claim in the piece ("this offends me personally") and a highly debateble claim ("this usage has an actual effect on the social construction of the disease and people's attitudes towards it"). We're living in an age with an unprecedented belief in and commitment to the idea that fine nuances of usage carry vast weights of political and attitudinal significance ("colored person" vs "person of color," for example). It is fair to ask the question, however, whether we haven't gotten rather sidetracked by some of this nuance-mongering. It seems to me all too easy to pat yourself on the back for using all the "right" talismanic words and phrases and feel that by doing so one is striking a blow for equality, but it's not really clear to me that, in the end, it does much of anything to move any wider social attitudes all that much. If one thinks about different stigmatized social groups over the lat century or so and the ones that have undergone vast changes in social attitudes and the ones that have not (gays, Irish, Catholics, Asians, blacks etc.) I don't see any hint of a correlation between the amount of activity around language-policing and the degree of genuine attitudinal change. One can always resort to the "oh, but it would have been so much worse but for the language battles" argument, but it seems shaky ground on which to stand.
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on September 28, 2014 [19 favorites]


I would like to know who, in this thread, has had mental illness for some time (I guess, five years or more?), and is arguing against using language in a way that doesn't cause pain/stigmatization to those suffering from mental illness.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:38 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


I would like everyone in this thread to publish their complete medical history if they wish to continue to disagree with me.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:40 AM on September 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


Look, if we're going to change the way we speak and write every time because it offends or excludes a group of people, then I'm pretty much ok with it. It takes near zero personal effort to do so and if it makes life easier for people then I'm not seeing the problem.

I guess the difficult part here is accepting and changing the fact that your language usage might actually offend people despite your best intentions. Like suddenly realizing you might be complicit in this shitty thing which fundamentally goes against your principles. Makes you wonder what other crap you're up to.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:40 AM on September 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


No, it's not that - it's just that I find it hard to believe that people arguing against a very simple change in their language are affected by mental illness. It only takes a moment of empathy and reflection to consider that the way you speak about people is an easy thing to change, and means a lot to people, and it's not a huge restriction on your personal freedoms.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:42 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


It only takes a moment of empathy and reflection to consider that the way you speak about people is an easy thing to change, and means a lot to people, and it's not a huge restriction on your personal freedoms.

And yet it takes considerable evidence to prove that that's actually what's going on. Evidence that you haven't supplied. Please see my earlier comment.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:44 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


>Because I RTFA'd.

That's funny; I only see one linguistic prescription in the article. If I use another browser will I get all linguistic prescription ever?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:47 AM on September 28, 2014


I respect identity models. It's a discussion for the affected group to have amongst themselves. That doesn't preclude non-affected groups from listening to all sides of the discussion.

Also, I think it's not bad for people to remember that communities are made up of individuals, who may have their own options, issues, and histories that affect what they want to be called. I hadn't realized that at least some autistic people prefer that tow "person with autism." So, huh. Not all neuroatypical groups share the same views? I can't say that's surprising, and I bet even more that in that community, there are disagreements. So, what can the well-meaning person do? I guess if a person with whom you are interacting says "hey, I prefer X," then say "sorry" and try to do that with that person, even if they are a minority of one. As I said above, I get why people push back on grammar; we learned it as babies, and it can seem really odd to use a different construction, but is it really so hard to try and accommodate people? By the time you get to know someone well enough to know their terminological preferences, with luck you will beyond the point where you think of them only in terms of what group identities they have -- then you can be "Hey, Dough, how are you today?" instead of "Hey, bipolar guy, how's your disease?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:48 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


It is fair to ask the question, however, whether we haven't gotten rather sidetracked by some of this nuance-mongering.

I think it depends on who gets to determine and assign identity. If people living with bipolar disorder ask nicely, "please don't use that sort of language", then it is reasonable and civil to acknowledge and if possible abide by their request.

In this case, "bipolar" is sort of a clumsy blanket term, when in fact the condition is a continuum - there is no one "bipolar disorder", yet calling someone "bipolar" is essentially calling them "crazy."

So there is a stigma associated with the language.

At the end of the day, it's just about being civil, and also understanding that "bipolar disorder" or "autism" or "Down syndrome" do not necessarily define our fellow human beings.

The word "inclusive" seems fairly PC, I admit, but it's all about reaching out a hand in fellowship and friendship, which, these days, is what our society so desperately needs.
posted by Nevin at 10:49 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


There are multiple therapies that take this linguistic turn, wherein the therapist externalizes "the problem" because the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. Its actually quite useful. Children in therapy blossom when approached from this postmodern perspective, and so do adults. It can be wonderful for families who are, themselves, stuck in linguistic conventions. You can talk yourself into a corner of helplessness, depending on how you talk about the problems in your life. People seeking help with thier problems can find themselves laughing in therapy; families may find themselves laughing together and feeling quite optimistic.

This is an oversimplification, but basically, by externalizing the problem, one can begin to create strategies to act against it, and invite people/loved ones to act as allies with you, against the problem. Wrapped up in all of this is also the idea that dominate narratives can take on a life of their own. A kid doesn't necessarily need to know that she has a diagnosis of ADHD, but she might, in therapy, recognize that The Fidgets aren't doing her any favors, and that she needs help when The Fidgets enter the classroom and sit down next to her. She might recognize, for herself, that The Fidgets seem to walk right in the door every time she skips lunch.

If parents walk in the door and decide that their daughter is fidgety, and the therapist accepts that kind of language, well, the only answer that seems to present itself is that the child has to change, has to stop BEING fidgety. (Or wait to BE CHANGED, by medication, because as she is, she's not GOOD.) another nice thing about externalizing the problem is that one can immediately imagine being without the problem. (Because one is not the problem.) and then friends and family can be asked to notice those times when the child successfully banished The Fidgets from the room. She isn't always fidgety! We forgot that!


I guess the difficult part here is accepting and changing the fact that your language usage might actually offend people despite your best intentions


My own take is not that you should avoid that kind of language because it's offensive. I see it as more of an invitation to join a community who is excited by the potential for healing. There are a lot of exciting things going on -- but you don't have to join in. We'll be over there.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:50 AM on September 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


If I use another browser will I get all linguistic prescription ever?

Only if that browser has Greasemonkey scripts for reading comprehension and basic interpretive charity.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:54 AM on September 28, 2014


I have to wonder how much of this is "we can call ourselves Foo, but don't you call us Foo!" type thinking. I had a coworker a couple years ago who would refer to himself as a homo or a fag, but would become outraged if someone who wasn't gay used those terms. Many of us have heard black people refer to themselves with variations of the n-word, but would never dream of using that word ourselves. Me personally, I will tell you that I'm crazy (rather than rattle off my laundry list of psychiatric illnesses), but if someone else refers to me as crazy, I would be incredibly hurt.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:58 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


"Bipolar" isn't redundant in this context, because it's being used to differentiate this disorder from "monopolar" depression.

Would it be inappropriate to use "bipolar depressive" if I really want an adjective for some reason?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:03 AM on September 28, 2014


I am unbelievably sick and fucking tired of lists of Things Not To Say To. Just try, really hard, not to be an asshole.

Well one nice thing about this list of ten things you're not supposed to say is that six or so are just fine including four that she specifically calls out as good.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have to wonder how much of this is "we can call ourselves Foo, but don't you call us Foo!" type thinking.

I think it depends on whether or not you have to band together with people with similar experiences to enjoy some sort of sense of "fraternity."

I have lived on-and-off in Japan for 20 years. I'm a "foreigner." My kids are Japanese citizens and are bicultural. However they are considered foreigners, too.

While it's not the same thing *at all* as living with a mental disorder, I am somewhat familiar with the experience of being assigned an identity by society at large.

It's not a big deal for me, I don't really care, but it pisses me off royally to see my kids being assigned an identity by society. Not much you can do about it, really, except give kids coping tools.

But in my own life in Japan I would never, ever refer to myself as a "foreigner" or as a "Canadian". Since I have a perfectly fine life in Japan, I don't identify with being "foreign."

If other people want to do so, that's fine, but in my mind I am just this person living on planet earth.

I wonder if that's what everyone wants, really.
posted by Nevin at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I would like to know who, in this thread, has had mental illness for some time (I guess, five years or more?), and is arguing against using language in a way that doesn't cause pain/stigmatization to those suffering from mental illness.

Personally, I try to use person-first language because I do think that it's harmful/dehumanizing to essentialize disorders or stigmas, and I think that that's what constructions like "I am [bipolar, etc]" do. Also, because I want people to refer to me using person-first language, and "do unto others..."

As I understand it, there are certain contexts where using person-first language is a political act that a sizable number of people believe reenforces the normativity of "able" bodies. That's true for the autism community, where the idea of "curing" autism is controversial, and that's true for the Deaf community, where Deaf is a culture rather than only a "disability" (completely slipped my mind as a good example of a context in which person-first language being inappropriate, thanks anotherpanacea). I think those specific contexts are the exceptions that prove the rule, however. Those exceptions also show that the language we use to describe "disability," "disorder," "identity" is important, and not something to just be dismissed as irrelevant or meaningless.

Would it be inappropriate to use "bipolar depressive" if I really want an adjective for some reason?

Would you be trying to say that someone who has bipolar is right now in a depressive episode? The you would say "So-and-so has bipolar; she's in a depressive state right now" or something like that. Again, that's not even about labeling people or person-first language or any of that, that's for clarity of thought. Saying "so-and-so is a bipolar depressive" doesn't make sense, or at least it doesn't make sense to me, because "bipolar" means that the person has/has had episodes of mania or hypomania as well as episodes of depression (that's what the "bi" of "bipolar" is describing).

If you're talking about someone who doesn't have/hasn't had any episodes of mania or hypomania, but does have/has had episodes of depression, then you could say that she has "monopolar depression" (which would be in contrast to someone having "monopolar mania/hypomania" -- you're specifying *which* pole, which is necessary/helpful because it's *mono*polar).

I guess you could also say "bipolar mania/hypomania-depression" if you really wanted to, but that actually would be redundant, because you're both specifying that the disorder is *bi*polar, and then listing out both "poles."
posted by rue72 at 11:17 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would like to know who, in this thread, has had mental illness for some time (I guess, five years or more?), and is arguing against using language in a way that doesn't cause pain/stigmatization to those suffering from mental illness.

Bipolar II for at least fifteen years over here. I believe in reasonable accommodation but I also believe that prescriptivist grammar is both unworkable and a petty distraction from serious issues. We mentally ill folks will not benefit from a reputation for linguistic quibbling.

That said, there is no "we mentally ill folks". My suggestion is that you talk however the hell you want and if an individual of your acquaintance is uncomfortable be kind and adjust your language appropriately.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:19 AM on September 28, 2014 [14 favorites]


It's a shame people are getting so mad that they have a chance to help people who are already tormented by their differentness feel a little less broken simply by using different wording.
posted by the jam at 11:27 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


joseph conrad is fully awesome, I have had bi-polar type II disorder for well over ten years. I have been on more medications than I can name, with little positive result, although I have had the opportunity to experience a thrilling suite of "side effects" over that time. My bi-polar (manic depressive is also fine, thank you very much) has severely impacted my academic, social, spiritual, and work life.

Have I established my bona fides to everyone's satisfaction? Have I missed anything that will allow the self-righteous Social Justice Warriors of MeFi to dismiss my experience and my opinions from their distant sky palaces because it doesn't fit their value system? Please let me know; I can get much more granular and I would be happy to do whatever it takes to for you to establish thoughtless uncritical empathy for me, which is of course the Coin of the Realm of modern social morality.

So:
1. Are you bipolar?
I am bi-polar. I don't care if you call me that. I don't think that you are reducing me to my disease, and frankly I suspect that one who takes to the internet to suggest that possibility is having a good public cry for themselves, and Are Not Helping. You certainly aren't making me feel better about being sick if you say I'm a person with bipolar, rather than the alternative descriptors. Further, yes, I am crazy. Technically (the best kind of correct). That's fine too (and honestly funny, and also I think very illustrative of what being bi-polar can be like). If the *way* that you interact with bipolar and otherwise crazy people is jerkwaddish, then I will try to have a small and respectful conversation with you, and not before.

And YES, I DO OWE YOU AN EXPLANATION. If you don't understand what it is to be bipolar or what I need from you, how can I expect you to know if I or someone like me doesn't tell you? Duh.

2. Oh yeah, I'm a bit like that
I do actually hate this one. I don't consider myself kinda-sorta paraplegic because my foot falls asleep sometimes, you do not understand depression (or get a ghetto pass) because sometimes you are "sad".

3. Do you think I might have it?
I think this is a nice conversation that can help reduce stigma about mental illness, so I disagree with the writer's premise on this one. I can see how someone expecting me to be the expert on bipolar could get tired, but that would have to be someone who is agressively Othering me, like I'm their mental health spirit guide just because I've been sick.

4. Is that what Stephen Fry has? Are you like Stephen Fry?
If you have enough energy to get annoyed with this question, you're probably on an upcycle. This person is doing you a favor by handing you the world's fastest diagnostic. Also: Yes, and yes, but that's mostly because we're both very smart, funny, and wonderful at parties.

5. So are all bipolar people creative or genius?
The author has apparently wandered at this point from the premise of her article and turned it into a helpful FAQ so I won't bother to respond to this non-complaint.

6. Did you ever try to kill yourself?
Let me try to avoid being snarky here. Being open to these kinds of questions (and of course they can be hard. That's part of what makes it so powerful and important) helps destroy stigma, misinformation, and fear in those people who don't have the disease. Putting up barriers reinforces them. At worst can't you just say, "Whoa, what an intense question! I don't know that I'm comfortable discussing that subject right now, sorry."

7. I feel bad for you
The author shows the flimsiness of her premise, and clearly just thought that 10 was a nice round number for an internet list, since this comment has the barest of relevency to the article itself. I would be happy, in this moment, to tell her to get bent and stop making my life harder with her Bizarro-world effort at raising awareness (and subtly shaming those without bipolar, for having the nuts to possess a different life experience than me as well as the arrogance to not fall over themselves to wrap me in great swaddling clothes because I am sick).

8. Is it cured? Are you cured?
"Oh, it isn't really something that gets cured. Some days it's good and some days it's bad, but it's always something that's *with* you. I'd be happy to explain more about that if you'd like to understand it better. It's a little confusing." Writer, you are an entitled ass.

9. Have you taken your medication?
Again, in an article about things you should "never say" (presumptuous!), we have another point which, apparently, you should say. And so I have no comment other than that this is an awful article.

10. Did you see Silver Linings Playbook?
Jesus take the wheel.
And no. I'd like to because I like the principles (and Chris Tucker!) but I've heard bad things.

If you have something to say please MeMail me; I'd love to hear about how I am wrong. But I certainly won't be reading anything else in this thread, so responses posted here to that effect will not be seen.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:30 AM on September 28, 2014 [36 favorites]


"It only takes a moment of empathy and reflection to consider that the way you speak about people is an easy thing to change, and means a lot to people, and it's not a huge restriction on your personal freedoms."

I don't know that there is a consensus for any group though. I'll be happy to adopt whatever language is most empathic but I don't think you can find it.
posted by vapidave at 11:34 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've had dysthymia for about 32 years. I don't really give a shit what people call it. That shit fucks up my life on so many levels and there is not one damn second I'm not fighting it. It is relentless and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 11:54 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't know that there is a consensus for any group though. I'll be happy to adopt whatever language is most empathic but I don't think you can find it.

Not group-by-group, maybe, but person-by-person you can. I know a few trans men. Most prefer the pronoun "he;" one prefers "they." I strive to remember which one, and it's not that difficult. When I fuck up, which I do occasionally, I correct myself, sigh at my clumsiness, and apologize. And that's a common thing like gendered pronouns. My friends' mental and physical issues don't come up that often unless there are special circumstances.

As for strangers, if they correct my usage, I do my best to remember their preferred terms. If they are nasty about it, I try and give them the benefit of the doubt or I avoid them in the future. On the other hand, I have dealt with the public for most of my adult life, so maybe I just have more practice at this.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:01 PM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Other than the natural structure of English grammar, maybe these terms are often subject complements because they are chronic conditions and the person with them is viewed as being fundamentally characterized by that, whereas having cancer or having influenza is viewed as an anomaly, something that will hopefully be overcome but doesn't alter that person's fundamental being, their mental state. I don't mean this is the case in reality but that it's the general public's unconscious view of these conditions. And that probably is the case, which is why it's important to ask people to change their usage. If they are willing to respect these requests, maybe it also indicates a fundamental change has occurred in their unconscious bias.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:05 PM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


My own opinion having watched two people very close to me suffer from mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) is that these two people in particular are dealing with something that affects their own lives and the lives of people close to them in very negative and disruptive ways that have measurably limited their life potential when you place them alongside others. I would argue their ability to function is severely compromised by these conditions and is something that they would rather not suffer from, if they had a choice in the matter. As it is, they have to live with it and I have to define careful boundaries to maintain my own self-care.

I hesitate to call it an identity or group, however I do believe my own ignorance and ableist attitude, stemming from a larger social stigma attached to people suffering mental illness, had a terrible effect on one these people in particular and I added greatly to their overall suffering for a time period of damn near a decade.

I love these two people, I desire to "cure" them by whatever means possible. It is a difficult subject to discuss, I try to listen more than I talk.

If getting some words right for others is a small way to help, then sure I'll do it. There are very real and serious issues in addition to this which are critical to discuss. I want to have those harder discussions in the right way, with respect and less ignorance, so figuring out HOW to talk about it is IMO a great place to start.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:13 PM on September 28, 2014


Everyone is focusing on the first item, but this whole listicle is a mess--the author's only comment on #7 is an indication that it's probably okay to say it, and #9 is something which (in exact contravention of the whole purpose of the listicle) you should ask someone with bipolar disorder.

Also, the commentary on #5 (So are all bipolar people creative or genius?) could be filled out a little more. Few enough people understand what mania really is, and it would've been nice if she'd pointed out that in a manic state you can feel very creative without doing anything that's really meritorious or useful.

This would've benefited greatly from an editor even glancing over it.
posted by TypographicalError at 12:31 PM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


There are two ways in which I see my clients be dismissed as people by others because of their mental illness. I'm sure there are other dismissals that happen - but these are the two that stand out to me.

One is the assumption that any obstreperous or undesirable behavior is as a result of the mental illness. I have a client who becomes symptomatic when he is scared or angry, and the response of his non-clinical caregiver is to remind him to take his meds. I have no reason to believe he's not; her reason to believe he's not is because he's showing stronger symptoms; he's showing stronger symptoms because even a minor surgery is damn scary, and symptoms are exacerbated by stress. Likewise, there is a strong history of dismissing abuse, trauma, unacceptable treatment, etc... when it is aimed at mentally ill people because the manner in which they express their discomfort is consistent with having a mental illness. Dismissing the discomfort of others is a lack of empathy and care which leaves them more vulnerable to criminals who protect themselves using social capital, like abusers and rapists. The rate of violence against people with mental illnesses is higher than the norm, and this is one of the reasons why.

The second way I see people dismissing my clients is by focusing on who they were instead of who they are. This is particularly pernicious in situations where part of the formation of the mental illness was the client feeling unacceptable for who they are and so creating an acceptable persona that eventually damages who they are. It can also significantly impair any treatment; I have clients who are shocked when I say I enjoy spending time with them because they are "not normal" and "not who I should be." Accepting people as they are, with all the 'not good' parts included, is a huge part of my job and something I tend to be rather good at - I wish it was a skill I could teach others, because I think we'd be kinder to each other if we practiced it.

The language of conflating the person with given characteristics, mental illness or otherwise, is complicated but it disturbs me to see people dismissing it as unimportant. To widen the scope a little - the debate about cochlear implants for people who grew up in the deaf community is a valid one, and so is the debate about whether mentally ill people should have to change for society, or society should broaden to include all of it's members instead of just the 'acceptable'/neurotypical ones. How we speak about people is part of broadening society linguistically, which shapes how we think about who is central and who matters in our societies.

Another note on language - by and large in my office we use the language of "disorder" and "dysfunction" instead of "disease" because sometimes there isn't a "cure" but there is finding a new normal which is enjoyable and functional. Disease now carries a lot of medical connotations which serve us ill when trying to figure out how to treat and live with mental illness. In practice with clients, though, I use their language; one of my clients says now and then that he is "feeling crazy today" and we'll talk about what that's like; in other contexts, I've tried to removed the term crazy from my vocabulary due to it being stigmatizing language.

In contrast, sometimes using the shocking language can have it's uses - I will often call myself fat around my friends because I am trying to affect their connotations with the word; they like me, fat is bad, the combination of the two causes cognitive dissonance. I would tend to not use the term in other circumstances, however, and "you're fat" is used as an insult regularly by assholes. All of my calling of myself fat doesn't make using the word as an insult hurt any less.

Language is complicated.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:12 PM on September 28, 2014 [16 favorites]


This seems like an excellent way to keep issues surrounding mental illness in the dark: by giving people a list of stuff they should never ask people with x disorder, thereby turning us all into neurotics who are terrified of interacting with them for fear of causing some kind of meltdown.

Hannah Jane Parkinson, I'm sorry that people bug you so much by trying to find out more about you via a tiresome and routine series of interrogations, and aren't just born with the knowledge fully-formed in their brains, but this seems pretty contrary to the general notion that we should "bring mental illness out of the shadows" (and that class of thing), and it also doesn't help the impression that people have of those with bipolar/manic depression: that they are hairtrigger crazies and you need to wear your eggshell slippers around them.

I even sympathise with the Stephen Fry questions, because it helps many of us to have a more or less universal starting point for our understanding of things.

(I say all this with love and sympathy and understanding, since I suffer from clinical depression myself and have had all sorts of - well-meaning - people asking me all sorts of annoying questions and giving me all sorts of annoying advice. I haven't had an episode for a good while but I seem to recall preferring people giving half a shit even if they were misguided, than not noticing or caring at all.)
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:02 PM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I hate person-first language. It's like picking up the distressing thing with tongs and moving it to the end of the phrase where we can pretend that it doesn't really matter. If I'm having a conversation about mental illness, then I'm already in a context here the distressing thing matters and pretending that it's less important than my 'personhood' (whatever that is) is dumb. At best it feels like a misguided attempt to avoid offense, at worst it's an overcorrection that reveals far more about the other person's discomfort with mental illness than it does about their supposed empathy. If I'm not in a context where my mental illness matters (most of time these days, fortunately), then why the hell am I even having a conversation about it?

On the other hand, I am not all mentally ill people and anyone who prefers to be addressed in person-first terms should be free to express that preference and have that preference respected. However, pushing for this as if it's a universal concern is wrong.
posted by xchmp at 3:32 PM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Where is that being said? No one is saying that. What's being said is that, out of multiple "correct" ways of saying a thing, one of them is potentially harmful. Why or how is that not valuable information, especially if you're so concerned about how to use your language?

This does not appear to be the consensus of native speakers of English, going by their idiomatic usage of the language.

The implication is that the speaker is being mean, or that the speaker needs instruction on their own native language. The former is incorrect, and the latter is actually kind of offensive.

there is an inarguable claim in the piece ("this offends me personally")

I think this is the key point. You're perfectly free to say "this offends me personally," but extending that to "therefore, this usage is inherently offensive" misunderstands how languages, and language change, work.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:45 PM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It’s leaky all the time—even if it’s not raining at the moment. But it’s only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to ‘addict,’ because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe."
Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson
posted by one weird trick at 4:39 PM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Hmmm. I'm completely on board with the idea that no person can be summarized in their entirety with a single word like "bipolar" or "cancer" or, hell, "broken legged". But in a very real sense you are how your brain behaves in a way that you aren't a broken leg. Unless you're some kind of brain/soul dualist (for which there is no evidence) "you" and "your brain" are essentially the same thing.

That's part of what makes things which affect the brain so difficult to treat, whether it be mental illness or a tumor located near your speech center or anything else. Any treatment, whether by design or by side effect, might fundamentally change how your brain functions and thus who you are as a person. And the more I have studied the brain (and I mean that in both a lay sense and an educational one from my degree) the less I am convinced by the idea that we can separate who we are from the processes in our brains.

Obviously this is all tied up in big concepts like free will (spoiler: there likely is no such thing) and consciousness (spoiler: a lot of what we perceive as conscious thought is likely post-hoc rationalization of instinctive decision) but... yeah, you are how your brain behaves, for good or ill.

c.f. Reasons To Be Cheerful by Greg Egan, Interzone #118, April 1997.
posted by Justinian at 5:17 PM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm OK with "being bipolar," I think being called "a bipolar" or something would seem off-putting, and I get why it bothers some people, but it really isn't the grammar, it's the way that it's said, I think. I've heard it used many times with typical negative intonation, using your voice to scowl while specifically explaining in mid-conversation about a terrible person in your life that "she's bi-pOler" without needing to say "well, you know...she's...BIPOLAR!"
posted by aydeejones at 7:56 PM on September 28, 2014


Obviously I meant that from a third person perspective because I've never used the construct to negatively describe someone, but it's a cliche with for example, difficult and possibly drug-seeking patients in healthcare, where the condition might actually be described in a patient's chart, or just random flippant use (like OCD and ADD among others) to describe normal day-to-day behavior in people (like having a mood swing or bottling something up and yelling abruptly at someone) is described as "bi-polar" which minimizes the disorder and the bi-polar nature of life -- life is full of ups and downs, it's just that bi-polar people have this weird gravitational up and down rip-cord lead/hydrogen balloon yanking us around while we're going through the complexities of dealing with the ups and downs that are completely typical to life in general.

One of the things many bi-polar people do is learn about other bi-polar people in history who succeeded, typically for creative reasons (and the most socially conditioned ones rarely bring this up and fawn over it as if this history applies to them) and in the process get some sort of comfort level with the disorder and specifically the term "bi-polar," because it is just more common (in my experience) including mental health books and books written by prominent bi-polar writers or artists...we'll use "manic" and "depressed" to describe specific states but to me it seems strenuous to say "manic-depressive" instead of "bi-polar." It takes too long to say and it's almost too descriptive to endure in regular conversation (and is often considered more accurate as a clinical term), as if you were talking to your friend about your mom's "weakness, pain and death disorder" instead of calling something "cancer" or whatever.
posted by aydeejones at 8:07 PM on September 28, 2014


I would like to know who, in this thread, has had mental illness for some time (I guess, five years or more?), and is arguing against using language in a way that doesn't cause pain/stigmatization to those suffering from mental illness.

I've had OCD for nearly as long as I can remember - been a long while since it was bad and I would never say I've had as hard a time as many but it's certainly a disorder very few people seem to understand well. Incidentally someone very close to me has bipolar but I will only speak on my own behalf.

Person-first means very little to me. Language isn't that logical, I don't attach special significance to the fact that a french speaker says she "has heat" rather than "is hot." Or for that matter, I *am* a computer programmer, I *am* a musician, I *am* descended from european jews, all of those things are partial, non-exclusive components of my identity and I have no problem saying mental illness is one too.

At the same time I know it is important to some people, and to some extent represents a reaction to the severity and inhumanity of not-so-distant approaches to mental health so I'm not against it per se. Why not try to be nice if you can? But I will say it does bug me a little when people without the personal experience (I also realize this can be non-obvious) start to lecture about it, because you know what else has a loaded history? Speaking for the mentally ill as if they can't speak for themselves!

Actually the one that gets to me more is people making a big deal about not saying "crazy." Um, I've been crazy, I've dealt with crazy people, it's not uncommon for people with no diagnosis to do something really crazy in bad circumstances. It's not something that defines you forever (or it shouldn't) but it sure as hell is a real place you can go and it's often not a lot a fun, and it's really not a good idea to stay there if you can help it. It's hard to explain why, but my side of this one I'm pretty invested in.
posted by atoxyl at 9:51 PM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


All these comments and no one has mentioned "alcoholic?"

Perhaps it's the culture/generation with which I grew up, but that word, more than any other, was a defining stigma: "John's alcoholic," as in that was his defining characteristic, and nothing he could do would ever change it.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:57 PM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Damn, mrgrimm. Good catch.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:36 PM on September 28, 2014


mrgrimm: Perhaps it's the culture/generation with which I grew up, but that word, more than any other, was a defining stigma: "John's alcoholic," as in that was his defining characteristic, and nothing he could do would ever change it.

anotherpanacea mentioned it upthread (but used the more general label of "addiction"). His point was that large groups of alcoholics have actually embraced the term (AA is certainly the one that comes to mind) as a way to connect and heal. So in this case there is a real argument for continuing to refer to "people with alcoholism" as "alcoholics". Whether that's true for the bipolar community or not, I'm not sure.
posted by TypographicalError at 11:26 PM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's good she says she can't talk for all bipolar people, because if I truly felt she was speaking for me I would be offended. But then, lists like this if they purport to speak for a group that I'm part of I often find offensive, because they usually feature one or two actual points of difficulty or necessary awareness-raising surrounded by personal gripes, and of course each person's understanding of which points are which is different.

So I find comments like this and this condescending and often insulting, as if I couldn't possibly disagree with what another person with mental illness thinks about how they should be addressed. They make me feel patronised and condescended to and treat me in the exact way the article, in its clumsy, ham-fisted way, is attempting to stop.

After years of struggle, I found one of the best ways I could personally deal with my own mental difficulties was to be open and honest about them, to normalise what I was going through, what a substantial percentage of our population goes through at some point, by doing my small part to show how ordinary it was to suffer mental illness, to try and break through the secrecy and stigma by owning it. To expect there to be no awkward attempts at identification, or people drawing parallels between a celebrity sufferer and what they've just been told, or even any stupid or insensitive questions, is to expect to be treated differently from everybody ever, because nobody escapes those responses.

For myself and the people I know with mental illnesses, we are not as thin-skinned, touchy or defensive as lists like this suggest we are, and if there is something I'm tired of it's being treated as if the loudest complainers and the quickest to offend represent me, represent us, as part of these groups. One of the dangers of mental illness is tiptoeing around it, and that's just another way to do it.
posted by gadge emeritus at 1:06 AM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


anotherpanacea The alternative is to say that there's nothing you or I *are* at all.

I think that's a very good alternative view. We are far too hung up on identity. However we are now, it isn't all we are, and definitely isn't all we were or could be.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:07 AM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is a small thing, but there’s a little linguistic point to be made here. Referring to somebody as “bipolar” sort of insinuates that the only thing this person is is an illness. Their entire entity is just a disease.

I don't think it's true as a general rule that saying "X is Y" insinuates that the only thing this person X is is a Y. I remember being struck when I was taking high school French that while in English you say "I am hungry" the literal translation of the French equivalent is "I have hunger." I don't think this results in English speakers regarding hunger as something that reduces a person's entire identity as an appetite while for French speakers, it's just a transitory characteristic.

Instead of making a linguistic point, Parkinson might had written "referring to me as 'bipolar' makes me feels like I'm being labeled as an illness, as if my entire entity is just a disease." And my response to that would be, "I never thought of that. I can imagine other people feel that way as well, and I'll try to respect their feelings in the future."
posted by layceepee at 6:10 AM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Whether that's true for the bipolar community or not, I'm not sure.

Well, Fry and Parkinson have their preferences, which we'd obviously respect when we spoke to them! But the Icarus Project has principles that argue for inclusion rather than prescription, and they are argue for embracing mental illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenias as an identity rather than externalizing and medicalizing them.

My claim has just been that we ought, as the Icarus Project puts it, embrace non-judgment and respect for diversity so as to be non-hierarchical and anti-oppression. The linguistic prescription here doesn't respect diversity or consider the ways that identity-based language might foster communities of mutual support. We can still respect Fry's and Parkinson's personal preferences, but a lot of folks in this thread have moved to immediately generalize them to all sufferers.

That's not the attitude I think is best for addressing these issues.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:36 AM on September 29, 2014


I have bipolar disorder; I am not your bipolar disorder.
Regarding Silver Linings Playbook:
OK, so I hated the book, with its theme of two fucked-up people magically curing each other's mental illness. But I love Jennifer Lawrence so much that I decided I'd at least hate-watch the movie. And it was somehow, impossibly, even worse than the book. Guess what, fellow fucked-up people? Meeting some magical other fucked-up person does not take the place of medication and therapy, which aren't cures but are pretty much the best we can do right now. And neither does dance.
/end rant
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:45 AM on September 29, 2014


Part of the problem, I think, is that we underestimate just how various and personal mental illnesses can be. Not everyone afflicted by mental illness is permanently mentally ill--many forms of mental illness can be triggered or exacerbated by life circumstances. People with schizoaffective disorder, for example, may exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia when clinically depressed, but may otherwise not develop full-blown schizophrenia. Even clinical depression (not bipolar disorder, but real clinical depression all the same) can be caused in otherwise healthy people by life trauma and can in some cases be "cured" with a combination of medication and therapy.

The tricky thing is some people are born with physical brain abnormalities that cause mental illness regardless of their life circumstances, and some people's circumstances can drive them to mental illness (classic clinical depression, nervous breakdowns, or temporary psychotic breaks), and it's not always clear which kind of sufferer is which. Actually, I imagine people probably also have varying degrees of ability to manage and recover from difficult life circumstances, so it's an even more complicated mix of both life circumstances and brain physiology, potentially.

I suffered and was treated for a nervous breakdown several years ago, and briefly experienced disturbing symptoms of psychosis--in particular, delusions of reference, paranoia, visual and occasional auditory hallucinations. My psychiatrist warned me it could be one of two possibilities: schizoaffective disorder aggravated by life circumstances (my wife and I had been watching our lives fall apart in astoundingly inventive ways outside our control for a couple of years by this point), or worse, outright schizophrenia. I felt like I'd been handed a potential death sentence, as schizophrenia is thought to be an irreversible, progressive and ultimately morbid condition. But with the help of medication, therapy, social support, and time, I was able to recover more or less completely (I'm still a little on the low energy side sometimes and have to work to keep my spirits up, and I still suffer periodic social anxiety, but easily within normal bounds--no more recurring delusions or hallucinations, and believe me, you don't want to see the kinds of things I used to see out of the corner of my eye every day, so it's a massive relief). I have moments of survivor's guilt, because I feel a little like a guy who faced down a firing squad but managed to survive through dumb luck.

Anyway, point being, mental illnesses are not simple. They can take a lot of different forms, and they aren't always necessarily down inside the core of who a person is. My case was due to a combination of substance abuse issues, personal hardships/trauma, and brain chemistry. In any particular individual case, those sorts of factors may weigh more or less heavily, but it's not as simple as saying mental illness is always a defining trait of those afflicted. It might or might not be depending on the individual case. Bipolar disorder, as a chronic condition, is probably closer to an identity defining illness than most others, but I don't know if it's more helpful or harmful to think of it that way. I have no idea.

Some people's minds get knocked badly out of balance temporarily (for years, even), but still eventually recover something approaching a normal balance. Others have an even deeper problem that may never be understood. But these issues are not simple and probably won't ever lend themselves to any tidy, easy explanations.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 AM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


This comment is right on the money. It is absolutely terrible to have someone deny you agency because they know you have a psych condition. To ascribe every thought, word, and deed to that condition is degrading, demoralizing and dehumanizing. This doesn't happen with diabetes! Or valvular heart disease. No one writes off your opinion or reaction because you have psoriasis!

Not so with mental illness. People routinely disregard and belittle the thoughts and feelings of those who suffer from mental illness precisely because they suffer from mental illness. That is why it is important to talk about these things. Psychiatric disorders are not like most other medical conditions because they manifest themselves through behavior. This makes it really difficult to tease out the 'disease' from the person.

And yes, in some ways it is not only impossible but undesirable to do so. Biplolar disorder shapes and is shaped by the patient's lived experience, as is the case with the other 'organic' psychiatric disorders. Like autism, like depression, like schizophrenia, it is part of the fabric of one's being–but the problem arises when we dismiss the whole cloth of that person because they have a psych disorder. And that is the problem that we must address, not the particularities of speech. And to me, that is the point of people- or patient-first constructions; to make it clear that, while bipolar disorder (or hemophilia, or intermittent claudication) is part of us, it is not all of us; that while these conditions may shape us, they do not limit us. The usefulness or success of people-first language is rightly subject to debate and disagreement, but the principles that motivate this language are, to me, above reproach, because they are principles that seek not to patrol language, but to increase empathy.
posted by Mister_A at 12:43 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


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