Stigma. One very important issue we, as a community, try to battle. It's the negative assumptions associated with bipolar and those who have been diagnosed with the illness. I personally have experienced instances where certain assumptions were made about me once I revealed I had bipolar. I became viewed as a liability. But then there are the stigmas we see being promoted in the media. Not too long ago we witnessed a huge media blow up regarding Megan Fox and her decision to remove her tattoo of Marilyn Monroe because Marilyn had bipolar disorder and was bringing her "negative energy". We read all the tabloid headlines declaring Britney Spears "bipolar" when they witnessed her partying and exhibiting odd behaviors such as shaving her hair off. Then, just recently, we had Charlie Sheen's erratic behavior declared "bipolar," and in a recent episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kim tells her brother to stop acting "bipolar." Are any of these portrayals of bipolar disorder sticking with the public? Have any of our efforts to combat stigma been even the slightest bit effective?
When I decided to write about stigma, I had so many ideas, such as why there was a media blow up about Megan Fox's tattoo, yet there was no mention about Kim Kardashian's use of the word. Did it have something to do with the person who made the statements? Maybe, but I thought that a more interesting angle would be to see what the general population really thinks when they hear the word "bipolar." Do they think of the crazy behaviors of Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen? Do they think of negative energy like Megan Fox stated? Do they have a pretty good idea of what bipolar disorder is? Should we focus more of our stigma fighting on issues such as educating the public of our competency and ability to live our lives as ordinary, functioning adults as long as we remain under our doctors care and take care of ourselves? That we are not as big of a liability as one thinks? I wanted to see what others (who were not diagnosed with bipolar disorder) thought when they heard the word "bipolar." I personally have not had anyone in my circle of friends or family think that I'm "crazy" or "psychotic" or anything like that because of my diagnosis, but have had those stigmas affect me by others, as I mentioned earlier. So, I decided the only way to find out was to take a survey. It has to be anonymous because I was afraid that people wouldn't give me honest answers if they knew I would be able to tell what answers each person gave. Survey Monkey was the best option, so I posted the survey and waited for the responses to pour in. I also thought it would be interesting to look up the word "bipolar" on the Urban Dictionary website. Their tag line is "The Dictionary You Wrote" so I thought it would be a great place to start and see how the public defined "bipolar." ** Note: In no way was this a scientific study. This was just something I was curious about and thought it would be interesting to examine**. It definitely was interesting and produced some surprising results. From both sources, the majority of the responses, or definitions, had pretty accurate descriptions of bipolar disorder and did not describe the "negative energy" or the types of behaviors the media has associated with it.
The Urban Dictionary website had 20 definitions for the word "bipolar" that pertained to mental illness. The most popular definitions described "bipolar" using phrases such as: frequent mood swings, periods of depression with mania or hypomania, and a roller coaster of emotions, no control over emotions. There were only 3 definitions that were negative (and surprisingly they were the least popular). The words they used were "crazy," "psychotic," and "defective." I'm really not surprised to find those adjectives in the mix, however I was shocked to see that they were the least popular of them all. Does this mean that maybe people are starting to learn what bipolar disorder really is and perhaps just a hand full of people out there are still uneducated about it? Could our efforts to reduce stigma and to educate the public be working? The media, however, seem to be in that hand full that hasn't "gotten the memo" yet and continue to focus their coverage on those least popular and less favorable adjectives and because of media influence and exposure, those are the ones that seem to get the most attention. Yet, despite the media attention, could the efforts we put forth to combat stigma actually outweigh that attention? Is it possible?
It is ABSOLUTELY possible!!!! The survey results very closely reflected what I found on the Urban Dictionary website. The question asked was "What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'bipolar'?" I posted the survey link on my personal Facebook page, my blog's Facebook page, a teen Facebook page I help run, and a few people I know posted the survey link on their own Facebook pages. Here is what the results or the 26 surveys said.
• Half of the responses mentioned mood swings and used phrases such as frequent and extreme/drastic to describe the mood swings.
• Manic depressive, unpredictable, and misunderstood were the words that had the next highest amount of responses (2 responses each)
• Some other words or phrases that only had one response: rapid cycling, lack of impulse control, emotion strongly influenced by cycles lasting several days, medication may help minds but destroy bodies, self-harm, suicidal.
• Some NOT so accurate phrases: crazy, moody in a predictable pattern, liars. (One response each)
Those results surprised me because they were surprisingly good depictions and are not the answers or responses of anyone that has bipolar disorder. I made sure to ask on the survey if the person had bipolar disorder, if they were friends with someone who has bipolar or live with someone who has it, or if they have not had any personal exposure to the illness. I took out any of the responses from those who said they have bipolar disorder. (I figured they were going to be a little bit biased.) There were two people who said they had no previous exposure to bipolar disorder and their responses described it as mood swings. It was really surprising to find that the responses with a negative tone came from people who have some exposure to the illness through either friends or family. That made me think a lot because I know from my own experience, it took quite some time for me to educate my friends and family about the illness and get them to understand that what they think of when they hear the word "bipolar"(from what the media taught them), is not quite the truth. It also makes me wonder if the media is more influential on friends and family who have heard the word "bipolar" used to describe someone they know and love, and so they are more likely to retain what they hear (fact or fiction) because they make the connection with a loved one and it answers some questions they are afraid to ask or never think to ask the individual with the illness.
So, how is it that those with no exposure to the illness had more accurate descriptions? Have we been doing our job and getting the information out there about stigma and educating the people who don't have any exposure except through the media? This small survey seems to show that we are. Now, why do the friends and family members have these inaccurate depictions? Have they had previous experiences with someone who has bipolar at a time when they were either untreated, or experiencing mania or severe depression? When I was untreated and before I was diagnosed, I was doing a lot of horrible things that left a lot of people angry with me. Even when I was first diagnosed, until I was given the medication that worked best for me, I was still all over the place and could seem crazed and irrational. Perhaps those that responded to this survey had those kinds of exposures and experiences and haven't seen what its like for someone to have bipolar disorder and to be under the doctors care, on the correct medications, and taking care of themselves, which leads to them living a pretty normal life where people don't even know that bipolar disorder is an issue. I think some of these thoughts would do well for a follow up survey.
What do all these results have to do with the media and why we rally so much against negative depictions of "bipolar" by them? I think these results say a lot about it. They show that even though the media throws all this negativity, and sometimes inaccurate information, about bipolar disorder into our faces via TV shows, tabloid magazines, and the internet, people still have an idea of what bipolar disorder is. I'm definitely not saying we can halt our efforts for preventing stigma, because stigma is absolutely still there (even by those we wouldn't think). What I think is more than just the definition of what bipolar disorder is, the ability of someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar to live a somewhat normal life, have a job, have a family, and be successful are definitely attainable is an aspect we should be pushing really hard. Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder does not automatically make us "damaged goods" so to speak. I go to work every morning at a large law firm, work 8 hours as a litigation paralegal, go home and take care of the house, and help run another website and online support group for bipolar disorder education for friends and family as well as support for those with bipolar disorder, then go to sleep and do it all again the next day. It is possible to have an ordinary life. I think that more than just the definition of bipolar disorder, the stigma still permeates because the media presents all the negative images of bipolar disorder, in addition to inaccuracies. We don't see the media portray a celebrity with bipolar disorder until they have had a break down or have had to seek treatment for it. While it can be inspirational to see them fall and then work hard to get their lives back together, it’s also inspirational to see those who are living an ordinary life and have NOT gotten the attention because of a landslide down. If we can focus on getting more positive images in the media, that might help those negative terms slowly dwindle, like showing we can handle everyday stressors and we aren't like a raw egg needing to be completely padded and every touch to be so delicate so we don't crack.
Stigma is everywhere you look. I'm sure we all are carrying a stigma of some sort about something or someone and we aren't even aware. Let’s continue to fight the stigma and focus even harder on the areas that now have the most misunderstanding. Lets try to show more cases of those with bipolar disorder that are filled with positivity and hope and can show the world that we aren't the way the media likes to portray us. The world needs to see that we can have ordinary lives. Yes, they may be filled with doctors appointments and medications, but we can still walk around this earth and if a stranger looked at us, our illness would be invisible. It should be invisible. Definitions and details of the illness are important, and I'm not discounting that at all, but they are only part of it. The survey results show that many people do know the definitions. So I think the images of positivity are going to help not just the public to see the truth, but will be undeniably inspiring to those struggling with bipolar disorder who may be thinking that things will never get better. They will. They do. Lets do this!!!!!!!