You’re Not Bipolar

Bipolar disorder is a diagnosis, not a characteristic. The more people use medical terms to describe a characteristic they want to highlight, the more they take away the serious nature of the meaning of these words. Typically people use this as a way to explain away characteristics of themselves that displease others as something out of their control. For example, most of us have met someone who claims to be bipolar because they are quick tempered or they lack control of their emotional reactions. Being excessively emotional or having a quick and violent attitude does not make you “bipolar”, it makes you immature.

The Value of Person First Language

Within ABA, we focus on using Person First Language. This means we make sure we don’t allow people to become their label. A person is not Autistic, they have Autism. They have Bipolar disorder, they are not Bipolar. This is because when we allow people to use a label to identify themselves, they allow themselves to take on those problem traits and characteristics as something they cannot control. They no longer allow themselves to believe their problem behaviors can be treated, because the behaviors are no longer controllable. It creates a built in excuse that whatever the diagnosis is explains all their problems and “it is what it is”, they no longer have to bother with the consequences of their actions.

  • “I’m always all over the place, I’m just schizo”
  • “You can’t expect me to get good grades, I’m dyslexic.”
  • “I have to have my video games in one spot because I’m OCD.”
  • “I buy stuff I don’t need or really want all the time, I’m so bipolar.”

Worse, people begin to cling to their labels the longer the have them. Often times, I have found consumers living in residential facilities will hold onto long retired terms. I have seen consumers argue with staff that they are retarded, and they don’t care what their paperwork says (now diagnosed with intellectual disability). The sane happens with typically functioning individuals. For example, someone may claim to be OCD, then use that as an excuse why everything must always be done the way they prefer.

The problem with all of this, it devalues the legitimacy and life-altering affects of truly having a confirmed diagnosis, and what that means to those who suffer from these diagnoses. Someone with Bipolar disorder doesn’t walk around like constantly having mood swings. However, when they experience a duration of mania or depression its significant and disabling. Someone with OCD isn’t just particular about how they like their cabinets organized, they cannot function in socially appropriate ways due to having to order their world in a specific way or they must follow a routine before being capable of proceeding with their day.

Whether it’s people without a diagnosis using these behavioral and medical terms as descriptions, or people with a diagnosis using them as a label, the lack of Person First Language creates an atmosphere for these terms to be misused. Just as people shouldn’t be defined by their race, gender, nationality, or physical characteristics, they shouldn’t be defined by a diagnosis either – especially those without a diagnosis and are just using terms irresponsibly.


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