Avoiding the Label of “Bipolar” — Labelphobia

Avoiding the Label of “Bipolar” — Labelphobia

July 16, 2015 Bipolar blog bipolar disorder

I have heard many times that people don’t want to get diagnosed because they don’t want the label “bipolar” put on them as if “bipolar,” in of itself, is pejorative, as if, somehow, some doctor writing a medical diagnosis on a chart is going to change their whole futures. Well, I have bipolar disorder; I have the “label” and everyone in my life knows it. I see no need to avoid the label of bipolar if, indeed, that is an accurate diagnosis for you.

The Controversy over the Bipolar “Label”

Now, some people would argue that there is a controversy around the label of bipolar. Some people would argue that because there is no 100% accurate test, (by the way, no test, blood or otherwise, is 100% accurate) the bipolar label is inappropriate and that because the label bipolar simply signifies a cluster of symptoms, mostly self-reported, it doesn’t count and people should avoid it.

Well, yes, “bipolar” denotes a group of symptoms – like every other diagnosis in the world. What is the common cold? A cluster of self-reported symptoms for which no test is done. So, is bipolar like that? Yes, it is, only it happens to be diagnosed by very well-trained, specialized doctor (psychiatrists; I would argue that a general practitioner’s diagnosis is tentative at best).

bipolar_on_cardThe Label “Bipolar” On a Child

Now, while I don’t see the point in running from the bipolar label for properly-diagnosed adults, I do understand a parent’s reluctance to see their child labelled with a mental illness. This does seem reasonable to me. This is not to suggest that children don’t have mental illnesses – they do – but diagnosing them gets a lot trickier.

And that’s because we don’t know how to truly diagnose bipolar disorder in children. If you look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) it doesn’t list the criteria for bipolar disorder in children as we simply don’t know what they are. We don’t know enough about bipolar in children to truly say. I think it’s pretty obvious that bipolar does occur in a small group of children, but waiting until they are 18 for their official diagnosis (note, I said diagnosis, not waiting to treat) may make sense.

Why We Need the Bipolar Label

I really don’t think I should have to enumerate reasons as to why mental illnesses, like all illnesses, need a name, but here are a few:

  • Specific illnesses, like bipolar disorder, have been recognized in patients for hundreds of years. They needed a way of recording that the same illnesses was being seen in different people.
  • Doctors need a way of speaking to each other, speaking to you and disseminating information.
  • Without that pesky “label” we wouldn’t know what to research or what treatments would work on that “symptom cluster.”
  • And, yes, doctors do have to bill insurance companies for something.

But more than all of that, being “labelled” bipolar can be positive and meaningful to the individual. So many people struggle for so many years with symptoms and have no idea why. Then, suddenly, when they are properly diagnosed, the label “bipolar” is a huge relief because then they know what is wrong and they can finally work to address it.

The Bipolar Label Is Not Negative Until We Treat It As Such

I have said, many times, that I am a professional crazy person. Many advocates hate it when I say this. But they simply don’t understand language. If you look up crazy in the dictionary, I identify with its meaning quite well. It is a fairly accurate statement when it comes to me. To me, that’s not a negative, it’s simply accuracy. Don’t worry, I promise, I won’t make you call yourself crazy but I’m a professional crazy person. That’s just me.

Bipolar is exactly the same way. The bipolar “label” is only a negative if we treat it as such. I do not treat the word “bipolar” as a negative. I treat it as a medical diagnosis as that’s what it is in most contexts.

And to the people who say that “labelling is bad” and we should avoid it: just get over it. Mental illnesses need labels so they can be studied and treated and that’s far important than your labelphobia.


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.

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