Bipolar Disorder Stigma and the Role of Language

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the role of language in bipolar disorder stigma? Does the way we talk about mental illness affect the public perceptions of the afflicted?

According to Kay Redfield Jamison, language can cause harm and pain to the mentally ill. However, it is unlikely to change bipolar disorder stigma or public perceptions of mental illness to any significant degree.

Read more to learn about Dr. Jamison’s perspective on the role of language in bipolar disorder stigma.

Questioning the Role of Language in Mental Illness Stigma

Once Kay Jamison, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychiatry, received a letter from an angry civillian. The woman who wrote the letter was angry that Jamison had used the word “madness” in a lecture title. She attacked Jamison for perpetuating bipolar disorder stigma.

Jamison’s first instinct was to push back against this woman’s accusations. But after some time, she also started to question the use of language and how confounds the already stigmatized lives of those living with mental illness. 

Addressing Bipolar Disorder Stigma

Language once acceptable within the inner circle of those who have, treat, or study mental illness has become morally questionable. Referring to someone as mad, crazy, or certifiable seems to carry an insensitivity to the palpable struggles those with mental illness live with. Phrases like “a sandwich shy of a picnic” or “losing your marbles” seem to diminish the severity of the illness and perpetuate a mundane and derogatory stigma about mental health disorders. 

When we use these words and phrases to admonish the volatile behavior of a person suffering from manic depression, we don’t just cause them harm and pain. We perpetuate the bipolar disorder stigma even further. Consequently, this helps justify discrimination or prejudice, which are hurtful and damaging to a person’s sense of self. 

On the other hand, Jamison believes that the power of this type of language is overblown and over-simplified. Language can help create awareness and sensitivity to the illness, but it is unlikely to root out the bipolar disorder stigma altogether.

Jamison considers the new trend of diagnosing patients with bipolar disorder, rather than manic-depressive disorder, as an illogical attempt to address bipolar disorder stigma and discrimination through language. As a clinical and academic professional, she sees the benefit of standard diagnostic criteria with standardized language. But as a person living with the illness, she finds bipolar to be too reductive. The reference to polar opposite behaviors misses the intense nature of both mania and depression and the intersectionality that often occurs between them. In addition, Jamison wonders whether mania isn’t merely a more volatile expression of depression. 

Changes in how society views mental illness are happening, albeit slowly. Most of these changes have come about by way of advocacy, representation in federal legislation, and the visibility of recovered individuals. In fact, several mental health advocacy groups have decreased stigma through community-education campaigns, increased treatment by confronting biased doctors, and improved legal rights for those with mental illness by lobbying politicians to enact protective legislation. 

Bipolar Disorder Stigma and the Role of Language

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Here's what you'll find in our full An Unquiet Mind summary :

  • How Kay Redfield Jamison first experienced a manic episode at the age of 17
  • How her illness made Jamison buy taxidermied animals and multiple Rolexes
  • Why Jamison believes there are positives to her manic episodes

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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