It Gets Better: Ending The Stigma Of Bipolar Mental Illness

Ending Stigma

My most recent article about fighting stigma challenged the ending stigma campaigns that are so in vogue in the bipolar community. It generated much interest and several thoughtful comments. One particular comment, appropriately titled “Perpetuation of stigma” was a perfect example of what I talked about in the article. As I crafted my response I came to realize it is deserving of its own article. Here is the comment in italics along with my response:

Perpetuation of stigma

Hate to call you out on this Tom… You are right on with the argument for ignorance.. I do feel if people where truly educated there would be no “stigma.” The one thing I do have a problem with is being called a “bipolar”… When teaching public speaking I always try to emphasize that you are not your illness… While I also suffer from fibromyalgia, I am not one… Doesn’t make sense.. Please don’t take this as confrontational as it’s not meant to be. It’s just an observation of perpetuation.
Thanks for all you do,

Hi Michael,

I have heard the “I am not bipolar, I have bipolar” argument for years and completely disagree with it. When I hear someone say he “has bipolar” it sounds to me like he sees it as an illness to be ashamed of. I am not my illness because I am not ill. I had disordered reactions before I fully understood who I am, but I now have my life “in order.” Calling bipolar an illness is one of the reasons for writing the article about stigma in the first place.

I am bipolar, bipedal, and bisexual, and am just as proud of those traits as being intelligent, articulate, creative, passionate, and angry that someone would call any of them an illness; they are simply descriptive of who I am. It was a hard-fought battle, but now I can acknowledge that I am bisexual without someone calling me mentally ill. How much longer do I have to fight the ignorance, fear, and discrimination I endure for saying I am bipolar?

They claimed homosexuality was a mental illness for many of the same reasons they now have for calling bipolar people ill. They talked about the suicides, drug abuses, and “out of the mainstream” behaviors as well as the negative consequences that they hoped would convince the mentally ill gay people to seek treatment. They advocated “conversion therapy” to change them to “normal” just as they are doing today with bipolar people. There was no effort to help them understand who they were nor to teach them how to fully function as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person.

When the American Psychiatric Association finally began to change their stance about homosexuality, a central argument for the change was the same one I make about bipolar: “Clearly homosexuality, per se, does not meet the requirements for a psychiatric disorder since, as noted above, many homosexuals are quite satisfied with their sexual orientation and demonstrate no generalized impairment in effectiveness or functioning.” Many of us are quite satisfied with being bipolar and demonstrate no generalized impairment in social effectiveness and functioning no matter how intense our manias and depressions get. We have taught many formerly disordered bipolar people who now say the same about being bipolar.

The LGBT community has come a long way since defeating the mental illness moniker in 1973, but the battle against stigma is not over. Some of the atrocities and discriminations are still with us today. For example, there are still a few pushing “conversion therapy” in spite of the APA coming out against it. Those of us who refuse to allow bipolar to be called an illness have the same battle ahead.

Bipolar, bisexual, and proud: refusing to be called mentally ill for who we are; ending stigma.

I am proud to be bipolar just as I am proud to be bisexual, and I have no problem “coming out” as either identities. You may recall that many gays were admonished and stigmatized by fellow gays for proudly declaring they were gay and not mentally ill—just like you are “calling me out” for saying I am bipolar. I am not going to hide in the closet and allow you to call me mentally ill for being bipolar or bisexual. It is part of the stigma that you are perpetuating.

Being bipolar is not an illness, but an advantage because both mania and depression give me insights and abilities that are not available to those who cannot experience them. I find it stigmatizing that anyone would attach the mental illness moniker to bipolar when I have already proven in myself and others that it is more like the X-Men needing to accept and learn to use their super powers. As Professor Charles Xavier said, “You have more power than you can imagine. The question is: Will you control that power—or will you let it control you?” I have long made the same argument regarding the power of mania and depression, but it is interesting that the X-Men are also often discussed as representing the LGBT battle against stigma.

We can show you how to function in all states.

We teach people how to use the power of mania and depression instead of remaining in ignorance and fear that they can only function when they are in remission. That is the stigma that I am most concerned with and I will fight your attempts to find a cure for who I am until my last breath. I recently wrote about how the top researchers are beginning to validate our experiences.

I am not advocating leaving those who are in disorder untreated and fully recognize the danger in remaining naive to the complexities of being bipolar. I am acutely aware of the tremendous suffering and deaths in the bipolar community amongst those who do not deeply understand it. I am also very familiar with the current methods of treatment and the outcomes they produce. The results seem truly remarkable when compared to those who are left untreated, but they are unacceptable and stigmatizing when compared to the superior results we achieve.

Our results are created via an integrated approach that addresses the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of life as well as our relationships with others and our career/financial needs. We embrace following the current evidence-based methods to reduce symptoms and achieve recovery as a critical and necessary first step, then following the Eight Essential Steps To Freedom From Bipolar Disorder for accomplishing something much greater. We do not ask anyone to deny their belief in the effectiveness of medicine, therapy, meditation, nutrition or any other tool, but to accept that better outcomes are available. It is not about curing bipolar and becoming “normal,” but understanding mania and depression so well that we function fully at each level of intensity and realizing that being bipolar is our advantage when responded to with wisdom.


Tom Wootton

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Tom Wootton founded Bipolar Advantage with the mission to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. His most recent work focuses on moving beyond recovery in bipolar disorder to what he calls Bipolar In Order.