I cheered about a talented and successful woman announcing that she is not ashamed to live with bipolar disorder. But I initially paused when reading the words “I’m bipolar.” That’s the sort of language that many mental health advocates discourage. I’ve been trying to unlearn language like that.
In the past, our language about mental health conditions often seemed to reduce people to diagnoses. We used to say (without thinking) that a person “is bipolar” or “is schizophrenic. Or, even more reductionistic, we would refer to someone as “a bipolar” or “a schizophrenic.”
The disability rights community has sought to overcome such stereotyping by encouraging “people-first language.” The point is that people with a health condition or disability are – first and foremost – people. At the same time that someone is a person with bipolar disorder, they’re also a person with an interesting job. Or a person with an adorable cat. Or a person with a fantastic singing and song-writing talent. Or a person with a neighbor who uses the leaf blower too early on Sunday morning. People who have bipolar disorder have lots of other ordinary and extraordinary things in their lives, just like other people do.
But it’s really none of my business how Bebe Rexha wants to name or define herself. If she’s trying to break down stigma, then it may be helpful to confront it as directly as possible. Many marginalized groups have made a point of re-claiming or re-purposing labels that were historically pejorative or stigmatizing. The “Mad Pride” movement of mental health consumers is one example, re-claiming words like “mad” and “nuts” to disrupt stigma and cast off shame.
As for me, though, I’ll stick with the people-first language. I’ll be careful to say that a person has bipolar disorder or lives with bipolar disorder. And if one of my patients says that they are bipolar, I might even explain why I don’t say it that way. But I certainly wouldn’t tell them – or Bebe Rexha – what words to use. After all, Kaiser Permanente’s anti-stigma campaign is called “Find Your Words”, rather than “Use Our Words”. Bebe Rexha and anyone else can use their own words to talk about their own mental health. The right words are the ones that make it easiest to speak up.