As people’s understanding and awareness of mental health grows, the language used to talk about it also continues to evolve.

“Bipolar disorder” is a term for several mental health conditions that involve extreme shifts in mood, energy, and how people perform certain functions. Figures from the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that bipolar disorder affects roughly 4.4% of adults in the United States.

Bipolar disorder was previously known as manic depression. But over the last few decades, health experts have shifted away from using “manic depression” to describe the condition and, instead, now use the term “bipolar disorder.”

This article explains when this change happened, what caused the language shift, and how to learn more about the impact of bipolar disorder.

People first described bipolar disorder in ancient Greek medical literature. In fact, you can find descriptions of mania and “melancholy” (depression) in the works of early Greek philosophers like Hippocrates and Aretaeus.

But one of the first classifications of bipolar disorder as a mental health condition was by a German psychiatrist named Emil Kraepelin. Around the mid-1800s, Kraepelin classified the symptoms of mania and depression as “manic-depressive insanity.”

It wasn’t until the 1980 release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-3, however, that the criteria for manic depression finally became clear-cut. It was also during this revision of the DSM that manic depression officially became known as bipolar disorder.

One of the reasons that the DSM-3 classification was so important for people living with bipolar disorder is that it expanded and improved the diagnostic criteria for the condition.

For example, the DSM-3 offered definitive criteria for manic and depressive episodes, hypomania, and other variations of the condition. It also separated bipolar depression from depression existing outside the bipolar disorder spectrum, called unipolar depression.

Another important result of the DSM-3 classification of bipolar disorder is that, in some ways, the revision helped reduce the stigma associated with the condition.

Previously, some people may have used terms like “maniac” and “psychotic” to stigmatize symptoms of conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia ― even among healthcare professionals. Introducing the term “bipolar disorder” allowed for a more empathetic and accurate description of people living with the condition.

While many people living with bipolar disorder can experience episodes of mania and depression, not everyone with bipolar disorder has manic episodes.

Here’s how the three main types of bipolar disorder can cause variations in symptoms:

  • Bipolar I disorder: This is the most common type of bipolar disorder and the one that many people are familiar with. It causes severe manic and depressive episodes that last 1–2 weeks and sometimes require hospitalization.
  • Bipolar II disorder: This type of bipolar disorder involves alternating episodes of depression and hypomania. Hypomania is a less severe type of mania in which there are some symptoms of mania, but they aren’t as extreme.
  • Cyclothymic disorder: Also known as cyclothymia, experts often classify this condition as a type of bipolar disorder. It causes frequent episodes of mild depression and hypomania that don’t meet the full criteria for bipolar I or II disorder.

Language is constantly evolving, especially in the mental health world. And according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, language is one of the most important tools we have in breaking down the stigma against mental health.

One of the reasons why language is so important when discussing mental health is because of the stigma attached to certain words.

For example, people sometimes may use terms like “maniac” to describe those who engage in violent or dangerous behaviors. But words like these can continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about people with mental health conditions ― which can make it difficult for them to reach out for help.

When we use words that are thoughtful, relatable, and inclusive instead, it can make it easier for people to speak up about their mental health. It may also reduce harmful stereotypes associated with these conditions, especially bipolar disorder, so that people with these conditions can get the help they need.

So, the next time you have a discussion on mental health, consider the language you might use. It could mean the difference between contributing to mental health stigma and stomping it out.

Continuing your education on bipolar disorder

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Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, affects tens of millions of adults and adolescents in the United States alone. Several types of bipolar disorder exist, and each differs in how it can affect someone’s energy, mood, behaviors, and more.

When discussing any mental health condition, it’s important to remember to use conscious language in discussions. Adjusting language and being considerate of what others are experiencing can help continue to diminish the stigma surrounding mental health.