How to Support a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder


What does it mean to find out that your loved one – a parent, child or spouse, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder? How can you help and what should you expect?

For many people, the initial reaction may be one of relief. Finally you have an answer for inexplicable behavior and moods: the rages or tantrums at seemingly nothing, the black depressions that are so sad and frightening to witness. At last you know what’s going on. Now how can you help?

Patience, Knowledge and Trust Will Be Your Best Friends

For an adult, the first step would be to make sure that your loved one is ready, willing, and able to accept your help. Remember their head may be spinning with news of this diagnosis. They may be afraid that they will be hospitalized against their will, and for older adults, their knowledge of the mental health system may be limited to B movies and images of straightjackets. Try to be patient and give them time to adjust to their diagnosis and also to trust their caregivers (the doctors and therapists they must now deal with).

Once they have decided to accept your help, you’ll need to have them sign consent forms with all their medical providers so that you will be able to provide and receive information from them. This is an important step, as it will make things much easier and go more smoothly if there is a crisis in the future. Sometimes for people in the middle of a depressive or manic episode, their sense of time becomes skewed so that important information for a medical provider, like “how long have you been feeling this way?” can be a difficult question to answer. Your ability to stay grounded in reality and keep track of details might end up being key.

Your next step? Learn what you can about bipolar disorder. Surf the net, ask your loved one’s doctor for resources, and if available, join a local community group. NAMI or your local mental health association may have groups for family members or loved ones dealing with bipolar disorder. Learn about the symptoms and signs of relapses or triggers to either mania or depression. You will have an easier time coping with behaviors and reactions if you feel like you can wrap your brain around what’s happening. Don’t burden your spouse or friend with questions, but take some time on your own to read up about this disease. You might also want to learn as much as you can about your loved one’s medication: what they take, the dosages, and how they manage their prescriptions. Sometimes when people with bipolar disorder become more acutely ill, they refuse to take medication. Having someone around who knows what was prescribed and in what dosages can be a real time saver in a crisis. Further, if your loved one becomes discouraged or frustrated with the side effects of a certain medication, you might be able to help by having a record of other medications that have been tried and what the results were.

If you live with someone who has bipolar disorder, it is likely that you will experience conflict, as the symptoms of this disease can be tough to tolerate: anger, rages, impulsive behavior, insomnia… doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest roommate, does it? Try to remember that none of these symptoms are personal and try to keep your responses from being personal too. As a parent or spouse, you need to create and hold certain limits regarding how you are treated and what words or behaviors are unacceptable, but you will also need to realize that sometimes your loved one will cross the line. Your role will be to model appropriate behavior when upset or angry and to help keep both of you safe. That may mean backing off and giving your loved one space some of the time. It may also mean asking direct and difficult questions, about medication compliance or behavior when you are not present.

Communication Really is Key

Communication will be important because at times you might feel like you are living with a prickly cactus: one moment of not paying attention and accidentally brushing up against your loved one and ouch! You’ve been prickled. Try to stay as calm as possible if your friend or spouse is manic. Don’t engage in conflict or even arguing. Own your own feelings and thoughts and use “I statements” to emphasize how clearly you are taking responsibility for what you think and feel. Be careful to avoid blaming, threatening or calling names. Statements like “You’re so mean when you get like this” or “Stop being so unreasonable” or “You should calm down” while they may speak a truth about what you are feeling, are generally not helpful at all. Try to stick with your own experience, and if it helps, force yourself to start every sentence with the phrase “I feel…”. That might help you stay focused on what’s happening inside you and not blaming or accusing.

Be ready for life to be a process, and for there to be good times and tough times. Your loved one is still your loved one, and the disease is just one facet of who they are. Enjoy what you can, laugh at as much of it as possible, and seek support where you can. Good luck!

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