10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone With Bipolar Disorder

On Monday, high-street clothing store Joy was forced to make an apology after not only stocking a product offensive to people with bipolar disorder, but then also managing to offend people who pointed out its offensiveness. Matryoshka dolls of offence, if you will.

As part of its accessories range, Joy is selling a card bearing the message: “Don’t get mad, take lithium”


When challenged about marketing a product which trivialises mental illness, Joy responded on Twitter: “If you know anyone with bipolar disorder, then don’t buy it for them. PROBLEM SOLVED.”

Joy’s social media guru idiot was then asked how someone with bipolar might feel if they happened to see the card in a store. Their response: “They’ll like it one minute and hate it the next?”

Mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness called Joy’s comments “deeply offensive”, “aggressive” and “obnoxious”, while former Labour strategist and mental health campaigner Alastair Campbell said the comments proved a “deep ignorance about the reality of mental ill health”.

Language is an interesting thing. Our choices inspire a multitude of reactions. Language around mental health is especially difficult. In this instance, many people vowed never to set foot in a Joy store again, while other people with bipolar disorder took to Twitter to say they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t speak for everyone with bipolar; we are 1-3% of the world’s population after all, but here’s a few pointers on not what to say to someone with the illness.

Are you bipolar?

This is a small thing, but there’s a little linguistic point to be made here. Referring to somebody as “bipolar” sort of insinuates that the only thing this person is is an illness. Their entire entity is just a disease. My surname is Parkinson so, can we not add to this, please?

Rather, I think it is more polite to say someone “has bipolar” than “is bipolar”. You wouldn’t say that somebody “was cancer”. You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.” But people will talk of someone “being bipolar”.

Bipolar is a part of my life, sure. But so are friends, family, work, life. So are words and music and photographs and Diet Coke and daily Google Image searches of Jamie Dornan. I’m not just bipolar.

Oh yeah, I’m a bit like that

I’ve had plenty of people say this to me after finding out that I have bipolar disorder. It’s meant kindly, as a means of finding common ground. Except often it comes across like Russia battering a flag into a bit of the Arctic she doesn’t own.

Everyone has ups and downs as a natural course of life; this is why people who are permanently smiley are irritating. Ditto those who seem to look to Grumpy Cat as a role model. The difference with bipolar disorder is the extremities of the moods (and the frequency).

Someone without bipolar might go through a bit of a giddy spell: “go mad” and exit Pret with two bags of popcorn at lunchtime, despite an initial intent to purchase just the one. A person with bipolar, however, during a manic phase, might sweep into Pret and announce forthwith that they are taking over the chain, because boy, they have so many great ideas. Have you heard all these great ideas though? Listen to these ideas.

Similarly, feeling down and miserable sucks, and it is something we all feel at times. Grief is a normal process. Feeling fed up is a normal. Clinical depression, however, (whether unipolar or bipolar), is a devil that chews on bones and gorges on souls and should never be underestimated or undermined.

Do you think I might have it?

Look, I was amazing at science in school. And I’m sure I would look good in a white coat – if I was Liz Hurley and thought it acceptable to wear white coats – but I am not a doctor. I don’t know if you have bipolar disorder. I don’t know any more than that printout you’re waving in front of me.

There is no diagnostic test for bipolar disorder, so often diagnoses rely on personal empirical experience and the testimony of close ones. If you are concerned about your own, or somebody else’s mental health, please do go and see your GP. While we still have an NHS.

Is that what Stephen Fry has? Are you like Stephen Fry?

Yes, it’s what Stephen Fry has, according to the brilliant and informative documentary he made for the BBC in 2006, entitled The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Yes, I am Stephen Fry. *poses for selfie with fan*.

I’m also available for personal appearances as: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kerry Katona.

So are all bipolar people creative or genius?

No, and no again. I would love to say this was the case. Trust me, it’s tempting, when one has a mental illness, to try to redeem some sort of positive element. So, of course, if I truly felt that everybody diagnosed with bipolar was special or a creative stalwart or a goddamn genius I would be shouting it from the rooftops. (Probably, literally, from the rooftops).

But while it is true that there has been research into links between bipolar disorder and creativity, (see Kay Redfield Jamison), and plenty of creative people have had the disorder, this does not mean that people with bipolar are born with an easel in one hand and a Smith Corona in the other. Hell, doctors can’t even decide whether people are born with bipolar at all.

So, as much as I would like to say that bipolar is responsible for huge talent, incredible charisma and Einstein-esque genius; I don’t think it plays a part in any of these things that I definitely do possess.

Did you ever try to kill yourself?

SOMEONE I DIDN’T KNOW ONCE ASKED ME THIS. It was at a really bad gig at a rundown club, and I honestly didn’t think the night was going to sink any further. Then a friend-of-a-friend asked me this. Don’t ask someone this. I mean, obviously do ask if you are friends and you’re having a one-on-one heartfelt conversation four pints in, but, in general, I wouldn’t ask this until you’re 99.9% it won’t make you a dick for asking this.

I feel bad for you

Thanks, bro. (I don’t mind people saying this, really. It does kinda suck).

Is it cured? Are you cured?

An Oxford don asked me this once in an interview. I didn’t even know what to say in response to it cos I was flabbergasted how somebody with such a big study and so many books could be so stupid.

It’s fine not to understand an illness. It is fine to ask questions, but one would hope that most people realise that mental illness cannot be “cured”. Just for the record, bipolar disorder cannot be cured. It is a lifelong illness. Some people feel that they are in remission, however. The goal to aim for is to maintain a healthy stability, usually through a combination of medication and lifestyle choices (and counselling too, if this helps). But, yeah, it’s pretty much there for life.

Have you taken your medication?

This is actually very much a question family and friends of people with bipolar should ask. I am awful at keeping track of taking my medication. Today, for instance, I have forgotten to take it. Medication – for me at least – is something incredibly important to my wellbeing.

I owe a lot, therefore, to my dear friends and family who keep on top of it, when I don’t (either through forgetfulness, or because I’m depressed and can’t see the point, or because I’m manic and the drugs I want to be doing definitely aren’t those that come written out on little green scrips).

In psychiatry, the notion of taking drugs or not taking drugs is known as compliance. If you’re someone who takes the medication you’ve been prescribed, you are compliant. If not, you exhibit non-compliance. The reason I have included this question in the list – even though it is a good thing to ask – is because the question in itself sucks just as a sheer reminder that one has to take medication to function like a normal human being at all.

I’d love to be able to say my heart doesn’t break a little every time I’m reminded to take my meds, but it does.

Did you see Silver Linings Playbook?

Why would anyone in God’s name not watch a film in which both Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star? Unless one has an allergy to good-looking people, everyone should see this film.


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