If you have a friend or loved one with bipolar disorder, you know this condition can be a challenge. The extreme mood swings and erratic behaviors can be hard for the person with the condition, as well as the people in their life.
It’s important for people with bipolar disorder to understand how to cope with their condition. However, it’s also important that the people in their lives — such as friends or family members — know how to help when they’re going through a manic or depressive episode.
Read on for a list of ways to help someone you care about who has bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a mental illness that causes extreme changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These changes affect the person’s ability to carry out daily tasks. Bipolar disorder most often develops in older teenagers or young adults, and the average age of onset is 25 years. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 3 percent of adults in the United States have bipolar disorder.
There are six main types of bipolar disorder. While they have some similar symptoms, these symptoms differ in their severity and treatment. Here are the six types, ranging from the most severe to the least severe:
- bipolar I disorder
- bipolar II disorder
- cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia)
- substance/medication-induced bipolar and related disorder
- bipolar and related disorder due to another medical condition
- unspecified bipolar and related disorder
The main symptoms of bipolar disorder are intense emotional phases called “mood episodes.” These episodes can switch from extreme happiness or joy (mania) to deep sadness or hopelessness (depression). Sometimes people with bipolar disorder experience both happiness and sadness at the same time (mixed state).
When people with bipolar disorder go through mood changes, they usually experience severe changes in their energy and activity levels, sleep patterns, and other everyday behaviors. Psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions, may also occur during severe mood episodes. These can be frightening both for the person with bipolar disorder and for those around them.
Bipolar disorder is usually a lifelong condition. While many people with bipolar disorder may remain symptom-free for periods of time, their symptoms can return at any time. Sometimes those with bipolar disorder grow anxious during these symptom-free periods, unsure of when their next mood episode will occur.
Living with bipolar disorder isn’t easy. But your support can make a positive difference in the life of someone with the condition, especially during mood episodes. Here are 10 steps you can take to help someone with bipolar disorder:
1. Educate yourself
The more you know about bipolar disorder, the more you’ll be able to help. For instance, understanding the symptoms of manic and depressive episodes can help you react appropriately during severe mood changes.
You don’t always need to provide answers or advice to be helpful. In fact, simply being a good listener is one of the best things you can do for someone with bipolar disorder, especially when they want to talk to you about the challenges they’re facing.
Offering your acceptance and understanding can go a long way in helping that person feel more comfortable with their condition. You can become a better listener by:
- actively paying attention to what they’re saying
- staying calm during conversations
- avoiding arguments
- avoiding any topics that seem to irritate or frustrate them
3. Be a champion
For people with bipolar disorder, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is against them. Assuring the person that you’re on their side can help them feel more stable. You don’t have to agree with the person’s behaviors and actions, but telling them that you’ll always have their back can be very beneficial.
People with bipolar disorder often feel worthless or hopeless, so affirming their strengths and positive qualities can help them recover from their depressive episodes more easily.
4. Be active in their treatment
Treatment for people with bipolar disorder usually consists of many therapy sessions and doctor visits. While you shouldn’t necessarily attend these appointments, you can help someone with bipolar disorder by coming with them and then waiting for them until their appointment is over.
These appointments can sometimes seem complicated or scary to people with bipolar disorder. Having someone there who can offer support and talk to them may help reduce any stress or anxiety they may be feeling.
5. Make a plan
Bipolar disorder can be unpredictable. It’s important to have an emergency plan in place if you need to use it during severe mood episodes. This plan should include what to do if the person feels suicidal during a depressive episode, or if the person gets out of control during a manic episode.
You should also have everyday plans that can help the person get through the time between extreme episodes. These plans can include coping mechanisms, such as what the person can do when they feel a mood swing coming on, or how to complete chores or other daily activities when they have low energy levels. Make these plans when the person is in a calm and stable state of mind. It’s best to write them down so both of you can easily refer back to them.
Sometimes people with bipolar disorder can become quite impulsive when they’re in the manic phase of their illness. When your loved one is well, they may ask you to hold cash or credit cards for them, which will minimize the potential financial damage they can do to themselves while in a manic phase.
If you agree to do this, be prepared to be on the receiving end of some hostility when your loved one “demands” that you give them their credit cards, bank books, or cash. Think in advance about whether you can deal with this before agreeing to support your loved one in this way.
6. Support, don’t push
Your support can be very helpful to a person with bipolar disorder. However, you need to know when to step back and let a medical or mental health professional intervene. While people with bipolar disorder are capable of making conscious decisions, you need to understand when their moods and behaviors are out of their control.
Also, don’t take it personally if the person experiences a setback while you’re trying to help. Remember that you’re both doing your best.
7. Be understanding
It can be hard for people with mental disorders to understand what they’re experiencing. Those with bipolar disorder may not know why their moods are shifting. Trying to understand what the person is going through and offering your support can make a big difference in how they feel.
8. Don’t neglect yourself
While you’re caring for someone with bipolar disorder, it can be easy to forget to care for yourself. But before you help someone, you need to make sure you have the time and emotional capability to do so.
If you do decide to help someone, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating properly, and exercising regularly. Keeping yourself healthy can better allow you to keep the person you’re helping healthy.
9. Be patient and stay optimistic
Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition, so the symptoms will come and go throughout a person’s life. The disorder is unpredictable, with symptom-free periods alternating with extreme mood episodes. For the sake of the person with bipolar disorder, try to stay patient and optimistic. This can help them stay on track to living a full, healthy life.
10. Know when it’s too much
No one knows how to handle bipolar disorder better than the specialists trained to treat it. If you’re helping a person with bipolar disorder and it feels like things are getting too difficult to handle, reach out to a medical or mental health expert right away. Call 911 if the person becomes abusive or threatens to harm themselves or others.
Helping someone with bipolar disorder can be a challenge. The person’s moods will be unpredictable, and it can be difficult to know how to react or cope.
But if you make the effort, you can make an enormous difference in the life of your friend or loved one. Knowing they can rely on you can help them stick with their treatment plan and stay more positive. It can also be rewarding for you to know that you’re helping your friend or loved one cope with the ups and downs of life with bipolar disorder.
How can someone build a relationship with a friend or family member who has bipolar disorder?
The most important thing to remember is that the person’s behavior is a symptom of the disease. Just as somebody with strep throat has a fever, sore throat, and may have difficulty speaking, that is not their “normal.” The same applies for the person with bipolar disorder. Sometimes, people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are accustomed to people in their lives abandoning them because they are unable to “deal” with the behaviors that the person can sometimes demonstrate when they are acutely ill. Letting your loved one know that you are there to support them and help them can go a long way in establishing a trusting relationship. Allow your loved one the chance to talk about their feelings, and share your feelings with them as well. Open and honest communication is the foundation of every quality relationship.George Krucik, MD, MBAAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.