Bipolar and Schizophrenic DefinedJanuary 19th, 2011
There are two terms I often hear being misused: bipolar and schizophrenic. I find the misuse of these terms somewhat distressing and disturbing, particularly when the person misusing these terms is someone I have great admiration for, such as the pope. For those of you that don’t know, the reason I’m sensitive to this issue is because I have been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (basically a combination of schizophrenia and either bipolar disorder or major depression; I have a depressive subtype.)
People misuse these terms because they have misconceptions of what these terms really mean, and apply these misconceived ideas to other areas, such as politics. This only reinforces the misconceptions, especially when it is in mass media that is supposed to be reporting factual information.
Before I discuss this any further, I’d like to quote the National Institute of Mental Health in defining bipolar disorder and schizophrenia:
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.
Bipolar disorder often develops in a person’s late teens or early adult years. At least half of all cases start before age 25. Some people have their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.
Bipolar disorder is not easy to spot when it starts. The symptoms may seem like separate problems, not recognized as parts of a larger problem. Some people suffer for years before they are properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder that has affected people throughout history. About 1 percent of Americans have this illness.
People with the disorder may hear voices other people don’t hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated.
People with schizophrenia may not make sense when they talk. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking.
Families and society are affected by schizophrenia too. Many people with schizophrenia have difficulty holding a job or caring for themselves, so they rely on others for help.
Treatment helps relieve many symptoms of schizophrenia, but most people who have the disorder cope with symptoms throughout their lives. However, many people with schizophrenia can lead rewarding and meaningful lives in their communities. Researchers are developing more effective medications and using new research tools to understand the causes of schizophrenia. In the years to come, this work may help prevent and better treat the illness.
Now that you have an idea of what bipolar disorder and schizophrenia actually are, you may begin to see how erroneously the terms bipolar and schizophrenic are commonly used. Without specific definitions of these illnesses, however, it is easy to understand how the misuse comes about when simply looking at the terms themselves.
By just looking at the term, it is understandable for people to get the idea that bipolar means only seeing two poles on an issue, such as liberal and conservative. True, there are two poles, mania and depression, but bipolar means moving back and forth between these two poles; and, it is the severe extremes of these poles.
If a person were politically bipolar, he would move back and forth between political extremes. This would not mean sometimes voting Democrat and sometimes voting Republican. It would mean fully embracing the Democratic platform only to abandon it and fully embrace the Republican platform only to return to the Democratic platform returning then to the Republican platform and so on. The cycle may occur every four or more years, or several time during a campaign. I doubt many, if any, people would have such a chaotic political view because it would involve a complete and constant change in core values. Such a change would be understandable once in a while, but not constantly.
The misconception of what schizophrenia means is even easier to have, and even more prevalent. The Greek word σχιζειν (schidzein) means “to split,” and φρην (phren) means “mind.” The most common misconception is that the mind itself is split; thus causing two or more distinct personalities. Such conditions do exist, but they are not call schizophrenia. The correct name is dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. In schizophrenia, the split is not within the mind, but between the mind and reality.
To be politically schizophrenic, a person would have to hold one political view, but support the contrary political view while thinking he is supporting the political view he holds. This would be like fully embracing the Republican platform, but aways giving time, money and votes to the Democratic party with the delusion he is actually doing this for the Republican party.
This is how the terms bipolar and schizophrenic can be applied to the political sphere. I doubt many, if any, people fall into these political categories. There are, however, many people with mental illnesses that do fall into the bipolar and schizophrenic categories. By misusing these terms, such as incorrectly applying them to politics, the misconceptions associated with these mental illnesses are perpetuated and real social harm is done to the mentally ill and their families.