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How NOT to Talk to a Person with Bipolar Disorder

Updated on October 2, 2013

It's Real, Folks

With all of the recent "hype" around bipolar disorder and the vast number of people diagnosed with it every day, it seems that many people are beginning to feel like it isn't real and maybe just an easy way to describe someone who is "crazy". I think people are sick of hearing that everyone under the sun has bipolar disorder and it is just a quickie diagnosis. In fact, I hear people joking about it all of the time. It's not a joke, folks.

Speaking from the vantage point of a person who has bipolar disorder, I can assure you it is very real and it is not a new phenomenon. People have suffered from this condition, previously known as manic depression, since the early ages. The first recorded mention of mental illness dates back to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The ancient Greeks described different moods through the balance of four humors, or "biles", which included melancholia, or black bile, to describe a depressed state. Hippocrates coined the term "melancholy" in the sixth century BC. Roman writings from the second century show a link between the depressed and manic states.

Despite the "popularization" of bipolar disorder, let's not forget the fact that it is a serious medical condition that affects otherwise normal people. Many famous and hugely successful people have or had bipolar disorder, many of them incredibly talented and creative. Some of these people include Emily Dickinson, Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Jesse Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Axl Rose, Jimmy Hendrix, and Ben Stiller. In fact, some of the people you see day-to-day may have bipolar disorder.

It is important to know how to talk to people with mental illness, including bipolar. We are normal people, with feelings, who contribute greatly to society despite a so-called disadvantage. This lens will look more closely at the disorder, how to talk to people who have bipolar disorder, and how NOT to talk to people with bipolar disorder.

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Not Just Black and White

Photo Credit: vasare.wordpress.com via Creative Commons
Photo Credit: vasare.wordpress.com via Creative Commons

Bipolar disorder is called such because people who have it fluctuate between very high moods, or mania, and very low moods, or depression. A person who is manic will usually be extremely happy, energetic, motivated, and creative. Notice I said "usually". Sometimes mania is a very frightening experience and is not fun at all. Many people who are manic can behave irrationally and take part in self-destructive behaviors. A step below full-blown mania is hypo-mania. People in a hypo-manic state are very happy and creative, but generally don't go overboard like in the manic state. I won't bother describing the depressed state since we all pretty much know what it is all about.

A common misconception is that people who have bipolar disorder are always in one of the above states, which is not true. Much of the time, if not most of the time, we feel "normal" and feel just like any other person would. In fact, every person in the world has an array of moods and feelings that fluctuate between extreme happiness and sadness. Our moods are just a little more extreme.

My point is, just because someone has bipolar disorder does not mean they are either manic or depressed at every single moment. We have a whole slew of emotions and moods that we alternate between, just like "normal" people, and most of the time we're not in either the super-high or super-low state, but somewhere in between. I am speaking from my perspective and, of course, not speaking for every single person out there who has bipolar disorder.

Photo Credit- myself, Meridith Zelaya
Photo Credit- myself, Meridith Zelaya

Watch Your Use of the Word "Crazy"

Ok, so many people with bipolar disorder may jokingly call themselves crazy and allow friends to joke about it too, but generally is it NOT a good idea to refer to anyone as crazy! Look at the picture - do I look crazy? Would I be a wonderful mom and wife if I was? Well, there may be a tinge of craziness in me, but, isn't there in everyone?

Update: Recently, someone I had recently reconnected with on Facebook, after I mentioned that I had bipolar disorder, proceeded to tell me I was crazy and asked that I never talk to them again. Can you imagine the ignorance and coldness? Please, whatever you do in life, do NOT talk to people like this. It stings.

We are Not "Bipolars"

As a person who has bipolar disorder, I'm just that: a person who has bipolar disorder. I'm not "a bipolar". Just like a person who has cancer is not "a cancer". I'm not exactly sure if there is a correct term for people who have bipolar disorder, but I do think that referring to us as "bipolars" is highly offensive. At least it is to me. It isn't because I'm embarrassed about having bipolar disorder, because I'm not. It just seems that calling someone by the actual name of the disease somehow equates the person with the disease, as if this is the only thing about them that matters. Does that make sense? It is hard to describe what I mean, but, suffice it to say, I think it is an offensive term and you should avoid it when speaking to someone who has bipolar disorder.

Before posting that funny bipolar joke or comment on your Facebook page or elsewhere, stop and THINK! Chances are a friend or two has bipolar disorder and you are not aware of it. Jokes about mental illness are not funny and can be hurtful, offensive, and a bunch of other negative things.

Don't Say This:

One time I got angry at one of my children or my husband or something, and I yelled (I never yell). The first thing my husband said was, "Are you feeling bipolar?" Is this an appropriate thing to say to someone? No, you're right, it is NOT! First of all, I was not "feeling bipolar", whatever that means. Second, I, just like everyone else, can get mad or have other normal feelings. Third, this was a very rude, demeaning, and insensitive thing to say. (Mind you, my husband is a very understanding and awesome person... I think that comment just sort of slipped out...and after seeing the look on my face, I believe he learned his lesson real quick!)

Famous People With Bipolar Disorder - Ya see? We're everywhere!

Photo credit: Louise Docker via wikimedia commons
Photo credit: Louise Docker via wikimedia commons

Show Us Some Love!

Take the time to understand

Do you love someone who has bipolar disorder? Chances are, you do. Whether he or she is a spouse, a friend, an aunt, or a cousin, if you take the time to really try to understand what bipolar disorder is and what it feels like, you really will show this person that they are cared for. Don't tiptoe around the subject. Most of us are NOT ashamed of having bipolar disorder and we DO want to talk about it with interested people. Again, I am not speaking for every single person who has the disorder, but for myself and many people I know. Feel free to say something like, "How have you been feeling lately?" or "What does bipolar disorder feel like?". We'll tell you, and, more importantly, we will be highly appreciative that someone has taken the time to try to understand and show support. You wouldn't believe how many people totally ignore the subject because they are afraid of it. If you don't know enough about it but would like to, simply ask us. We don't bite. We are not ashamed of having this disorder, nor should we be.

I understand the feeling of tiptoeing around a subject, though. For instance, if someone is going through a divorce, it is difficult to know what to say. I suppose just being honest is the best policy. If a friend said to me, "I don't know anything about bipolar disorder and I don't know what to say because I might offend you.", I would really appreciate just the fact that she brought it up instead of hiding it, like it is some sort of deep, dark secret.

I am very open about the fact that I have bipolar disorder because I am not ashamed, whereas many people are. In fact, much of the time I consider it to be a blessing. Not everyone shares my thoughts on this, but, wouldn't it be interesting to get inside your loved-one's head for awhile and take a walk in their shoes?

We Can't "Get Over It"

Bipolar disorder is a chemical condition that cannot simply be ignored and pushed to the side. If in the depressed or manic state, a person cannot simply "feel better" at will. Normally, people with bipolar require medications in order to control their moods. We do not control our moods. Ok, so sometimes may exacerbate the situation by getting down on ourselves, because I'm well aware that I do this on occasion, but it is not possible for people to simply snap out of depression, mania, or even a hypo-manic state.

It is very difficult to know what to say to a person who is having trouble with bipolar disorder, I understand this. Much of the time, simply being there to listen to someone vent is appropriate. Reassuring and showing love to your friend or family member is essential as well. Refrain from telling the person to "cheer up" or "feel better" or "get over it" at all costs. Believe me, if we could, we would.

Thanks for Visiting... - ...care to leave a comment?

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    • profile image

      Michael 24 months ago

      how i was able to cure my self from bipolar with the help of a man called dr.aikobaya herbal cure, my relationship almost ended because of the virius but i say once again thank you sir for helping my life in case you need this great and powerful man you can also reach him aikobaya24hourslovespell@hotmail.com or +2349032730545

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      You don't look crazy to me; I think you look beautiful. The word for people with bipolar disorder is people. I'm sorry people are hurtful in their ignorance sometimes. When people call a person with this disorder 'a bipolar' it's as bad as calling a homeless person 'a homeless' without the person word in there.

    • blestman lm profile image

      blestman lm 3 years ago

      Definitely not something you "just get over". Thank you for developing this lens on a sensitive topic.

    • Radgrl profile image

      Radgrl 3 years ago

      My husband and I both have bipolar disorder. I have really gotten mine under control, but he is a work in progress. To be fair he is the only one working right now and I know that is very stressful. I had to medically retire.

      Thanks for writing your article. I agree with your comments

    • profile image

      emtriche00 3 years ago

      Forgot to tell you that I am sooooo glad you mentioned about the "Just get over it"

      "Its not THAT bad." "Snap out of it" and as my mom used to tell me, "Boy, you need to get a grip the family is tired of worrying." IF THEY COULD EVER LIVE AS WE DO WHEN SICK.LOL!!

    • profile image

      emtriche00 3 years ago

      WOW! You sure did put the head to the nail. I loved your writing(very popular with us ) I am VERY open with friends, coworkers and clients. I miss work a lot sometimes when moody. Honesty stops the ignorence that accommodates those with big mouths. I correct false understanding, I like it. (bad me) I enjoy educating people of my illness. I laugh at the jokes(ignorence really is bliss) then I correct. They get embarrassed but they now know what and how to address topix they know nothing about. I am not ashamed to have a legitimate illness that requires daily maintenance. PLUS, friends are quick to share concerns about current episodes. IT'S a BLESSING! When manic I am a loud attentionthat triesto be a comedian and I want everyone to know it.TOO MUCH! When called crazy. I crack up and ask them what they mean by that. Not everyone is so cruel. I sit for lunch to educate others. I give support groups and I am not negative. I am VERY open to education. That is how they learn themselves and reminds me of reality. (even we forget we have it...can be bad). It is all society fault. You can share with others or you do not owe anything. You are loved, unique, creative, and important. THANKS SO MUCH! My name is Ernest and I am open to others experiences. ;)

    • ionee251 profile image

      ionee251 3 years ago

      I really find this lens very helpful. I got angry often, and depressed as well this past few months. This would serve as a red alert in my case. Bipolar is not common in our province so I'm learning it here. Thank you for publishing this lens.

    • shauna1934 profile image

      shauna1934 3 years ago

      Nice to "meet" another functional mother dealing with a mental illness. Another offensive thing for me is when I'm angry (it IS OKAY to get angry) a loved one automatically asks, "Have you taken your medication?" I can understand the concern... But they get angry too.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @ashleydpenn: Actually, I did not realize I used that word...thanks for pointing that out. I, too, feel quite blessed to have bipolar disorder much of the time. I have periods of intense creativity and I am very self-aware... Thanks for making this point!!

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 3 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Calling out anyone's disability, whether it's physical or mental is insensitive. I believe in general people are even more insensitive when it comes to a disability they can't see. It unfortunate often people tend sympathetic to people with a broken leg more so than to someone who has depression. Well written and some great points made.

    • ashleydpenn profile image

      ashleydpenn 3 years ago

      I found this lens very helpful. I have a friend whom I love like a brother, who has bipolar disorder (as well as a schizoaffective disorder). It breaks my heart to see him when he's in a state of depression.

      I was wondering about your comment referring to bipolar disorder as a disability. I know some very creative people who have bipolar disorder, and whom would not wish to live without it; as they see it greatly aids them in their creativity (Stephen Fry, for one). Undoubtedly for some it is a real disabling condition, but I wanted to ask you if you thought there might be a more appropriate term? I am myself dyslexic, and whilst dyslexia and bipolar disorder are two very different conditions, I get frustrated with it being constantly referred to as a disability, or having people as me if I 'suffer from dyslexia', rather than asking 'do you have dyslexia'. Personally I think of my dyslexia as aiding my creativity and perspective on the world.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @LiteraryMind: Yes... people need to realize mental disabilities are as real as diabetes, cancer...thanks for visiting :)

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @Erin Mellor: Agree! Thanks for visiting and reading my take from a bipolar perspective.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 3 years ago from Europe

      This is a great insight, we need more genuine understanding of mental health conditions. As for your "friend" on Facebook - what a jackass - education is a cure for stupid, but if stupid people refuse the treatment, then they're just going to stay stupid.

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I found this lens very helpful. Thanks for sharing your firsthand experience and educating us to be more sensitive. I think it's important to understand others and make every effort to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Stay blessed!

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @Whatsittoyou: Agree!!

    • Whatsittoyou profile image

      Whatsittoyou 3 years ago from Canada

      That is unbelievable that someone would ask you not to talk to them simply because of your Bipolar disorder. That person is the one who has something wrong with them!

    • callmeKatie LM profile image

      callmeKatie LM 3 years ago

      This is great advice. I have bipolar disorder, and it bugs me when people joke about it as if it just involved mood swings or something. Bipolar disorder and mood swings are completely different. Thanks for this lens.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @mel-kav: Yes, I wish everyone realized this. It seems like at least once a week I have to remind people of everything you just wrote. Someone told me recently that she learned to make her depression go away. You know what I have to say about that? BULLSH*T! It simply does not go away. It is wonderful that she feels better but...

    • suepogson profile image

      suepogson 4 years ago

      This is a really useful and open lens. Congratulations. You will help others with your frank discussion.

    • mel-kav profile image

      mel-kav 3 years ago

      Excellent lens. As a psychiatric nurse, I often hear people say that many psychiatric diagnosis are bogus / made up / not real, etc. Well - guess what - these diagnosis are real!!!

      You would never hear someone saying that diabetes is not real - because it is a MEDICAL disorder in which the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to transport glucose from the blood to body cells. So when there is an imbalance of insulin and glucose, we see symptoms of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia.

      In mood disorders and other psychiatric disorders, there is an imbalance of chemicals / neurotransmitters that carry information from one neuron to the other. When there is too high or too low of a level of these chemicals exchanged or reabsorbed at the synapse level, then we see the mood fluctuations.

      It's the same concept - just a different area of the body. I have seen people respond significantly to medication treatment for bipolar and mood disorders. Psychotherapy alone does not always work with certain disorders.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Wow. Great lens, it is sad that people great you badly, u r a nice person from your lens.

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 4 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      This is a really important lens with info that could help many people with loved ones that have bipolar disorder. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas.