Helping a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

By: Lindsey Wilkes

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 — a mood state characterized by a period of at least one week where an elevated, expansive or unusually irritable mood exists — 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 along with you playing a significant role in their recovery. Often, just having someone to talk to can make all the difference to your loved one’s outlook and motivation. Some ways you can help someone with bipolar disorder are to educate yourself on the illness, encourage them to get help, be understanding and patient.

First, learning about your loved one's illness is the best thing you can do to help them. Learn everything you can about the symptoms and treatment options. The more you know about bipolar disorder, the better equipped you’ll be able to help your loved one and keep things in perspective. Although you may not know exactly what they are going through daily, you can easily help them and make them feel that they aren’t alone. As someone who has bipolar disorder myself, I have constantly encouraged my family and friends to learn about the illness so they are considerate of what myself and 57.6 million other people in the world deal with on a daily basis.

Furthermore, 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. Almost 10 million people will develop the illness sometimes during their lives. About half of these will never receive the correct diagnosis or treatment. Personally, talk therapy and medication have been a great way to help with my illness. Reaching out is one of the best things you can do.

Katherine Langford, an Australian actress best known for playing Hannah Baker on the Netflix original, ‘13 Reasons Why’ said in the Beyond the Reasons episode, “Reach out, even if you feel like you can't talk to your parents, or don't want to tell anyone at school because you're embarrassed, call a hotline. Talk to someone anonymously. Just talk to someone because the minute you start talking, it gets easier. And just know that there's life beyond what you're feeling at the moment. I promise it will get better. There is an entire future of incredible things waiting for you, and you are more than your illness.”

In addition, be understanding. Let your friend or family member know that you’re there if they need 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. Don’t forget to also remember to 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. Those with bipolar disorder will manage on their own, but they still need the help and encouragement from those around them.

Though many family members and close friends don’t understand that some things they may say aren’t something you should say to someone with bipolar disorder. I have had experiences where some of my family members have said things that you shouldn’t constantly say to someone with the illness. If your loved one has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you may be in shock and may not know what to say. It’s important to choose your words carefully, because what you communicate can either support your loved one and encourage them to seek treatment or make them feel even worse about themselves and their diagnosis, discouraging them from getting the proper help they need.

You may have been surprised by your loved one’s diagnosis and their behavior may be very frustrating, but no matter what they do (or doesn’t do) and how upset you get, you must do your best to avoid saying that it is their fault. The truth is that bipolar disorder is a genetic medical illness and it is treatable. Your loved one may cycle between being depressed with very little energy to being hyperactive or “manic.” This is all part of the illness and they can’t help it. It’s important that you be supportive, without nagging them. It will also help you if you know what to expect and how to spot when your loved one is not doing well or has stopped taking their medication.

Many people who have loved ones with bipolar disorder know the wrong thing to say, but there is no right things that you should say. Constantly being supportive and making sure they are taking their medication is key. You should also take care of yourself and make sure that you have emotional support. Lots of people who have a family member or a close friend with bipolar disorder often need to talk to someone as well to make sure they are mentally stable.

Remember, if you or a family member or close friend has bipolar disorder, you are not alone. There are so many great resources that you can check out online and find a support group. You are not your mental illness and it isn’t your fault. Stay strong.

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