Adjective. Early 19th century.
1. Have two poles or opposite extremities. E19
2a specifically Of a nerve cell: having two axons, one either side of the cell body. M19
2b Of psychiatric illness: characterized by both manic and depressive episodes,
or manic ones only (in indiviual or family history). M20
3 Of or occurring in both polar regions. L19
Also: BIPOLARITY M19
(a) the state of having two poles
(b) the occurrence of the same species in each of the polar regions
Although the psychiatric definition originated in the mid-20th century, it does seem that the words bipolar and bipolar disorder have only entered the wider public consciousness relatively recently. Growing up, the term bipolar was completely unknown to me, whereas terms like manic depression and manic depressive were not.
Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme fluctuations in mood between highs (mania) and lows (depression). Although often represented by the dramatic masks motif, commonly interpreted as 'happy' and 'sad' faces, bipolar disorder is much more severe than merely a cycling between feeling bright and cheerful one day and a bit down the next. The highs, for example, while sometimes associated with bursts of productivity and creativity, can also manifest themselves in extremely destructive behaviour, such as reckless spending or risk-taking. The lows can manifest themselves in a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness, perhaps even suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Both extremes of bipolar can have a severely detrimental effect on one's life, career and relationships.
Bipolar disorder is surprisingly common, with some sources giving the figures of 1% of the population having bipolar, and 4% experiencing some of the characteristic symptoms at some point in their life. Various celebrities with bipolar have also done much to boost public awareness of the condition, including Stephen Fry, Russel Brand, Frank Bruno and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Sadly, despite this growing awareness, ignorance and stigma toward bipolar remain, as it does toward all mental illness, including the perception that people with bipolar (and depression) should just "get over it", and confusing bipolar with very separate illnesses like schizophrenia. In researching bipolar, I particularly liked Abigail Southworth's picture, shown below, that well-illustrates both the disruptive nature of bipolar, and the sense of being 'caught in the middle' of various negative stereotypes and misconceptions. On a positive note, the growing awareness of bipolar, as with all mental health matters, should do much to continue breaking down ignorance toward it, just as medical treatment and research continue to improve.
By Abigail Southworth