Receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder might feel isolating. But you don’t have to go it alone.
In fact, having a support system — made up of family, friends, and anyone else you trust — can help you manage your condition and live a healthier life.
To help your loved ones help you, it’s important to talk with them about the type of support you need.
When sharing your diagnosis or asking for support, the key is to be clear and specific about your needs.
Be thoughtful about disclosing
First, make sure you’re in a good headspace and your loved one is, too, says Seida Hood, LCSW, a mental health professional on Maven, a virtual clinic for women’s and family health.
As Hood notes, if your family member had an awful day at work, you’re less likely to get a supportive reaction.
Next, decide how much you’d like to disclose, which may depend on your relationship with the person.
For example, you might keep your explanation super simple, like this suggestion from Mimi Winsberg, MD, co-founder and chief medical officer of Brightside, which offers online treatment for depression and anxiety:
Explaining bipolar disorder
“Bipolar disorder, previously called manic depressive disorder, is a chronic condition that’s also episodic. So it occurs occasionally and at irregular intervals. It can cause instability and fluctuation in my mood, energy, sleep activity, and concentration.”
Or you could share more personal details, as in this example from Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery:
Explaining bipolar disorder
- Mania: “When you experience happiness, it feels great! But during a manic episode, my happiness can shift to euphoria, irritation, and agitation, leading to risky behaviors. I may even have psychotic symptoms with hallucinations and delusions. Mania is way too much of a good thing.”
- Depression: “On the other pole, my depression is an amplification of the sadness everyone experiences. It can make me feel like I’m stuck in a hole that’s too big to crawl out of, to the point where I’m no longer able to function.”
- General symptoms: “The extreme highs and lows can last for days or even weeks at a time. They are more than just moodiness — I also experience severe changes in energy, activity, and sleep. Both mania and depression can be much harder to get out of when left untreated, so I need to follow the recommendations of my doctor.”
Don’t take poor responses personally
If a loved one reacts negatively or the conversation doesn’t go well for another reason, “try your best not to internalize it,” says Hood. “Know that their responses are not exclusively about you, even if they’re talking to you… they may have an outdated view of bipolar [disorder] or absolutely no frame of reference at all.”
Explain your warning signs
Winsberg suggests creating a list of your unique warning signs and sharing it with loved ones.
That way, your loved ones can “watch for symptoms such as mood changes, behavior changes, or conversational style changes and serve as a source of objective feedback,” she says.
For example, warning signs that you’re approaching a manic episode might include:
- going to bed later and later
- forgetting to eat
- talking really fast
- taking on more projects than you can handle at once
Talk about the best approaches
If you’re starting to neglect self-care or experience symptoms, how do you want your family to approach you about it? As Kennedy asks, do you prefer daily reminders, a gentle nudge, or a more assertive sit-down?
Talk about this in advance, so your support system knows what you’ll be most receptive to. This could be as simple as saying, “Tell me when you see me staying up too late,” says Winsberg.
“You might even develop some hypothetical scenarios to practice how everyone might respond, just like you would in a fire drill,” adds Kennedy.
Use “I” messages
If a loved one is doing something that isn’t helpful or supportive, Hood suggests using this format when communicating: “I feel [specific emotion] when you [specific action]. Would you please [proposed solution]?”
For example, she says: “Hey, I love that you want to support me in this journey. I’m so grateful for that. Sometimes it makes me feel frustrated when you tell your mom about my therapy sessions. Would you please keep that between us?”
Having a supportive community around you is important. A study of 312 people with bipolar disorder found that those who reported seeing family and friends had higher recovery scores.
Another study of 100 people with bipolar disorder suggested that those with more social support had:
- shorter mood episodes
- greater ability to function
- fewer depressive symptoms
- shorter times until the start of regular treatment
One major way loved ones can help is by spotting warning signs you might naturally miss.
For example, at the start of a hypomanic or manic episode, many people feel energized, empowered, confident, and productive, says Kennedy. This is especially true if you’re digging out of a depressive phase.
Psychosis, which may occur with bipolar disorder, can also impair your ability to know what’s real and what isn’t, adds Kennedy.
Your partner, parent, or best friend can pick up on these red flags and get you the support you need, such as a medication change, she says.
After you’ve done the work of talking about your diagnosis with loved ones, here are a few ways to use those relationships to support you.
Attend an appointment together
Just as you might do for any physical health condition, you can schedule an appointment with your therapist or primary care doctor and invite your family, says Kennedy.
During this time, your loved one can ask questions about your diagnosis and learn specific ways to provide support.
For example, when she meets with clients and their families, Kennedy discusses the importance of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and reducing stress — a major trigger for mood episodes.
For some families, this can mean managing expectations and making some compromises, she says, like making sure a parent with bipolar disorder isn’t up all night with a crying newborn.
Think about who you need at different times
“Certain people are skilled at providing us with different types of support,” says Sonia Martin, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in bipolar disorder, anxiety, and addiction.
For example, Martin says, figuring out who’s best in a crisis can help you identify your emergency contact.
Spell out the type of support you need from each person. When people know exactly what’s expected of them, they can ask questions, prepare, and step up, adds Martin.
You might ask different family members to:
- become your daily walking buddy
- drive you to therapy appointments
- double-check that you’ve taken your medication
- accompany you to a meeting for a recovery program, such as an AA meeting
Come up with a clear plan
Support is especially essential when symptoms progress to a full episode. Together with your therapist or doctor, create a personalized safety plan and give a copy to each person in your support network, recommends Kennedy.
Your safety plan should include:
- instructions for what others should do in case of emergency
- who should be contacted and involved in decisions about care
Here’s a PDF template for a crisis plan that you can complete and print out.
When you have bipolar disorder, a support system is vital for effectively managing the condition.
Loved ones can spot warning signs of an upcoming episode that you might understandably miss. Family and friends can also support you in maintaining healthy habits, taking your medication, and getting help during a crisis.
When you’re ready to talk about your diagnosis or ask for support, clearly communicate how bipolar disorder affects you and the kind of support you need.