I was introduced to the concepts of word meaning and verbal sense in one of my classes. It originates from a Soviet psychologist named Lev Vygotsky (Лев Выготский) who some consider to be the father of cognitive psychology. The original readings are rather dense, so I use this article as a main reference point, along with conversations I’ve had with peers to further understand these concepts in the 21st century. I will oversimplify word meaning and verbal sense for the sake of my discussion here, so I encourage those who find this topic of great interest to look into the works of Vygotsky. The context I’ll be using these concepts is to further delve into the debate on whether it’s more appropriate to use “I’m bipolar” or “I have bipolar.” This topic intrigues me because of the treatment and self/identity implications this has for people who have/are bipolar.

Here’s a crash course on word meaning and verbal sense: Word meaning is essentially how a word develops over the course of the lifespan in a historical and cultural context (i.e. family is a group of things be they kin, scientific, etc.). Verbal sense is the feeling you develop about that word; for instance, the word family brings to mind both biological and nonbiological people who I consider close, though the word itself I have mixed feelings about because of how I’ve experienced it in life. The contrast here is that of cognition and emotion, respectively, that cannot be separated in Vygotsky’s line of thinking. Let’s take a look at word meaning first.

Bipolar has a few definitions in different contexts: 1) having two poles or extremities, 2) the psychiatric disorder, 3) the neuron type, and 4) in electronics. The first two are probably the most familiar overall, although those with a science background will have a more complex word meaning of bipolar because of the more numerous contexts in which the word can be used. I’m not sure when I first heard the word, but I do remember it being related to the psychiatric disorder. In my undergraduate years taking various science courses, I learned about the different types of neurons. Only vaguely do I remember being told that batteries are bipolar in their charges at some indistinguishable point in time. So the evolution of this word will vary from person to person, and that will provide a different context in which to relate to it.

Verbal sense is the counterpart in the debate between “I’m bipolar” and “I have bipolar” that has been utilized most. Some people feel very strongly about what this term has come to mean for them in the psychiatric definition. In a Vygotskian framework, we need to respect this verbal sense people have developed; it is part of their development and ultimately their identity — the lens through which they view the world. Like I have mentioned previously, I prefer “I have bipolar” because bipolar disorder is one part of my identity in the same way that “I have a degree in psychology” is part of my identity; they don’t define who I am, but have been significant parts of my life. It speaks to a larger way that I define identity, which seems to vary from person to person. However, I think there are nuances in this argument.

My main concern is over treatment. I have a hypothesis that it’s imperative to insist on telling people who have just been diagnosed with bipolar that they have the disorder rather than they are the disorder. This, I believe, would counteract — to a significant degree — feelings of self-stigma. Stressing the separation may be crucial for treatment compliance and quality of life; it’s like getting a head start on recovery that a lot of us didn’t have. After stabilization, though, I think it’s also important to let people explore identity — to explore the verbal sense of bipolar. Treating and exploring the self/identity in a psychiatric setting is unprecedented, but I personally feel it’s necessary for a better recovery and enriched life.

Whether you agree or disagree, I invite conversation on this topic. There are new ways in which we need to conceptualize what it means to have bipolar disorder at the individual level.

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