Helping Someone with Bipolar Disorder
What You Can Do to Support a Friend or Family Member
If someone close to you has bipolar disorder, your love and support can make a difference in treatment and recovery. You can help by learning about the illness, offering hope and encouragement, keeping track of symptoms, and being a partner in treatment. But caring for a person with bipolar disorder will take a toll if you neglect your own needs, so it’s important to find a balance between supporting your loved one and taking care of yourself.
How can you help someone with bipolar disorder?
Dealing with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder can be difficult—and not just for the person with the illness. The moods and behaviors of a person with bipolar disorder affect everyone around—especially family members and close friends. During a manic episode, you may have to cope with reckless antics, outrageous demands, explosive outbursts, and irresponsible decisions. And once the whirlwind of mania has passed, it often falls on you to deal with the consequences. During episodes of depression, you may have to pick up the slack for a loved one who doesn’t have the energy to meet responsibilities at home or work.
The good news is that most people with bipolar disorder can stabilize their moods with proper treatment, medication, and support—and you can play a significant role in his or her recovery. Often, just having someone to talk to can make all the difference to your loved one’s outlook and motivation.
Here are some other ways you can help:
Learn about bipolar disorder. Learn everything you can about the symptoms and treatment options. The more you know about bipolar disorder, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one and keep things in perspective.
Encourage the person to get help. The sooner bipolar disorder is treated, the better the prognosis, so urge your loved one to seek professional help right away. Don’t wait to see if the person will get better without treatment.
Be understanding. Let your friend or family member know that you’re there if he or she needs a sympathetic ear, encouragement, or assistance with treatment. People with bipolar disorder are often reluctant to seek help because they don’t want to feel like a burden to others, so remind the person that you care and that you’ll do whatever you can to help.
Be patient. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment. Don’t expect a quick recovery or a permanent cure. Be patient with the pace of recovery and prepare for setbacks and challenges. Managing bipolar disorder is a lifelong process.
The importance of support in bipolar disorder recovery
People with bipolar disorder do better when they have support from family members and friends. Those whose loved ones are involved and supportive tend to recover more quickly, experience fewer manic and depressive episodes, and have milder symptoms.
Bipolar disorder and the family
Living with a person who has bipolar disorder can cause stress and tension in the family. On top of the challenge of dealing with symptoms and their consequences, family members often struggle with feelings of guilt, fear, anger, and helplessness. Ultimately, the strain can cause serious relationship problems. But families can successfully deal with bipolar disorder if they learn to accept the illness and its difficulties. When you’re feeling frustrated or guilty, it’s important to remember that bipolar disorder isn’t anyone’s fault.
Accepting bipolar disorder involves acknowledging that things may never again be “normal.” Treatment can make a huge difference for your loved one, but it may not take care of all symptoms or impairments. To avoid disappointment and resentments, it’s important to have realistic expectations. Expecting too much of your family member is a recipe for failure. On the other hand, expecting too little can also hinder recovery, so try to find a balance between encouraging independence and providing support.
Tips for coping with bipolar disorder in the family
Accept your loved one’s limits – People with bipolar disorder can’t control their moods. They can’t just snap out of a depression or get a hold of themselves during a manic episode. Neither depression nor mania can be overcome through self-control, willpower, or reasoning. Telling a person to “Stop acting crazy” or “Look on the bright side” won’t help.
Accept your own limits – You can’t rescue a person with bipolar disorder, nor can you force someone to take responsibility for getting better. You can offer support, but ultimately, recovery is in the hands of the person with the illness.
Reduce stress – Stress makes bipolar disorder worse, so try to find ways to reduce stress in your loved one’s life. Ask how you can help and volunteer to take over some of the person’s responsibilities if needed. Establishing and enforcing a daily routine—with regular times for getting up, having meals, and going to bed—can also reduce family stress.
Communicate openly – Open and honest communication is essential to coping with bipolar disorder in the family. Share your concerns in a loving way, ask the person how he or she is feeling, and make an effort to truly listen—even if you disagree with your loved one or don’t relate to what’s being said.
Supporting a person with bipolar disorder
What you can say that helps:
- You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.
- I understand you have a real illness and that’s what causes these thoughts and feelings.
- You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.
- I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.
- You are important to me. Your life is important to me.
Adapted from: The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
3 Helpguide. Helping Someone with Bipolar Disorder Jeanne Segal, Ph.D and Melinda Smith, M.A.