In what has been a strikingly bitter and divisive US election campaign, one of the most distasteful forms of personal attack has been left-wing bloggers labeling VP candidate Sarah Palin as bipolar. These commentators apparently believe it is possible to diagnose Governor Palin as a closet sufferer of manic-depressive illness, without ever having met her or going through a formal diagnostic process. Bipolar is actually a specific medical term and the criteria for bipolar is set forth in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
For those of us who do have bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness), or who advocate on behalf of the bipolar community, this is a disturbing development that epitomizes the extent to which bipolar has become synonymous with bad behavior. Increasingly, lay people feel free to sling the term bipolar around as a pejorative, and seem to believe they have, through pop culture osmosis, become experts on this very complex illness. The term bipolar has become contemporary cultural shorthand for anything we interpret as extreme or obnoxious in light of our own personal belief system.
In reality, bipolar is a spectrum of mood disorders, characterized by mood swings between mania and depression.
The symptoms of mania include excessive risk taking, hypersexuality, reckless financial spending, gambling or investments, and incoherently rapid and disjointed speech. Another common bipolar symptom is grandiosity, a grossly inflated sense of one’s abilities and entitlements.
The bipolar community has disproportionately high rates of marriage breakdown, financial problems, substance abuse, obesity, and career under-achievement. During depressive phases, bipolar people may become withdrawn, unmotivated, despairing, or even suicidal.
Governor Palin has a very happy and successful marriage, her personal finances have been scrutinized and found above reproach through the VP vetting process, she has maintained a successful career, and does not abuse alcohol or drugs. Instead of grandiosity, Palin drives herself to work, listed the Governor’s jet on e-Bay, and dispensed with an executive chef. Like many Alaskans, she does use a tanning bed during the long dark winters to fend off vitamin deficiencies and Seasonally Affective Disorder (SAD), a far cry from clinical depression.
Of course, not all Americans are pro-life feminists like Sarah Palin. Some voters disagree strongly with her on the important issues of the day, and will choose to support her opponents instead. It should be possible to go through this process without further caricaturing sufferers of manic-depressive illness. Invoking the specter of mental health disorders to denigrate individuals with a different political perspective is ignorant, hurtful, and childish.
Governor Palin is a hard working, high functioning politician, with views some do not share. Labeling her bipolar in order to express ideological disapproval is taking a medical term already overloaded with cultural baggage, and using it to further marginalize millions of fellow citizens who bravely struggle against this misunderstood disease every day, and who are already subject to a heavy burden of stigma and ignorance.