10 Ways to Support a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • Bipolar disorder touches the lives of friends and family. There may be times when you feel confused, incapable of helping, or even scared. When it comes to offering support there are no set rules, but some guidelines may be helpful in working out what is best for you, your family, and the welfare of your loved one with bipolar disorder:



    Learn the Warning Signs: Just a rudimentary knowledge of bipolar disorder may help you spot the warning signs of impending depression or mania. This may help you to persuade a loved one to see their doctor. In the case of depression, for example, warning signs could include the person cutting themselves off from others. They may become indifferent to previous interests and find excuses not to bother with them. They may seem to complain more about physical symptoms like aches and pains and they may spend longer in bed. By contrast, some of the warning signs of mania might include speaking faster than usual, having lots of plans and ideas, starting several different things but not following them up. The person may feel full of energy and enthusiasm but have great difficulty in concentrating.

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    Get to Know Depression: A person with depression generally sends out very clear messages about how they feel. They look drained of energy. Movements are often slow and sluggish. Speech is slow and effortful and sometimes non-existent. The person looks deeply sad and troubled. They appear indifferent to their surroundings and indifferent to themselves. Their self-care may suffer and significant changes may occur with appetite and body weight.


    Then Get Involved: You can support someone with depression by taking the edge of essential tasks, for example shopping or driving. It's better to encourage some form of routine activity even if the person complains of exhaustion or they just want to stay in bed. There is actually no harm in reminding the person that how they are feeling and what they are saying relates to their depression, but that you are going to help them work through it and stand by them until it passes. Keep the doctor informed, monitor food and fluid intake and make sure medication is given at the prescribed times.


    Help with Mania: Your tolerance threshold may be stretched thin when it comes to states of mania but it's often the case that whilst a lot of heat may be generated (in terms of physical activity) this may not translate into problem behavior. You may be involved in a situation where the person appears vibrant, healthy and insists they are in control. If they have experience of states of elation it is quite possible that at some level they realize what is happening. This can make it a little easier for you to persuade the person away from activities that could be dangerous, or put off plans for to start a business, or some other major projects.


    Your first experience of seeing someone with the more common state of hypomania may not be what you expect. They may actually appear quite in control if a bit over-talkative and anxious to get on. They may appear be going about tasks in a reasonably competent fashion although typically this will be just one of several tasks. Such is the need to press on and do things that sleep is overlooked and so, sometimes, are food and drink. These are all things you can help monitor.


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    Stay Alert: If a loved one threatens suicide take it very seriously. Get professional help. Don't ever allow yourself to be persuaded that their feelings are a secret that you must promise never to reveal. You may feel that you have betrayed a confidence but you may have saved a life. Always remember that a secret such as this is an unfair burden on anyone. Imagine if the person does attempt suicide and you have not informed anyone. There may be a local suicide or Samaritans hotline you could use, but if in any doubt call 911. Also think about rallying support from family members and/or close friends.


    Support the Treatment: It is important that you understand the need for consistent treatment. Taking medicine at the prescribed times is very important, but so are regular visits to your doctor. Sometimes your loved will feel so well, or possibly complain so much about their medication, they will want to stop. It's most important that you don't support this and instead persuade your loved one to see the doctor.


    Remember the Children: If there are children in the family they will be particularly sensitive to the fact that something is wrong. Don't exclude children or try to brush off their concerns as this will simply make them feel rejected and more anxious. Children can often take on information more easily than a lot of adults think. Their approach is often very matter-of-fact in the first instance and then they will revisit with other questions that come to mind later. For children, the real issues are that it is not their fault and that what is happening will not affect how they are loved or looked after. If they have seen or heard hurtful things it needs to be explained in simple terms that this is part of an illness that everyone is working hard to make better.


    Get Informed: There's really no reason why anyone should be in the dark about bipolar disorder. As an internet user a simple search engine enquiry will throw up a host of useful and informative options. BipolarConnect, of course, has a great range of informative and useful material. I also like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) site, which is a busy and helpful site that covers a wide range of issues and support options. There are many more for you to discover in your own time.


    Get Support: Local support groups are active all over the country. Most are quite small and informal. Check out your local newspaper, library or local directories for information. BipolarConnect has a few good suggestions too. Find out more about support groups.

    Stay Optimistic: Bipolar disorder can sometimes feel like an unwelcome stranger has moved in. Despite this, very many couples enjoy rich and fulfilling lives that they have skillfully adapted to meet their unique needs. In any partnership your own sense of self and emotional well-being is often enmeshed in the life of your partner. By this criterion, helping to look after your partner actually helps look after yourself. As with any relationship the lived experience of bipolar will change from person to person and family to family. You can share your own tips and experiences in our forum.


Published On: February 20, 2009