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Understanding your loved one's Bipolar Disorder

Friday 1 May 2020
Mental Health

Table of contents


I. What is Bipolar Disorder

II. How Can I Help?

a. Medical Treatment

b. Listening

c. Supporting

d. Reducing Stress

e. Planning

f. Patience

g. Remembering Yourself


What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that can cause severe changes to someone’s behavior, mood and energy levels. Bipolar was formerly known as manic depression. People who suffer from this illness often experience episodes of extreme highs known as mania and extreme depression. If you have a loved one who has bipolar disorder then you know how challenging it can be, both for the person who has bipolar and for the people in their lives.

Bipolar disorder is commonly recognized by periods of mania and depression. This disorder usually starts during adolescence, although it can start in your forties or fifties. [1] We do not know the exact cause of bipolar disorder but researchers believe that it runs in families. Evidence suggests that for people who have the gene in their family, this disorder can be triggered by an event or a lifestyle. Common triggers can include sudden or drastic life changes, including losing a loved one, getting married or going to college. Other triggers can involve stress, medications, sleep deprivation or substance abuse. Many bipolar disorder episodes can occur without an obvious trigger.[2]

People that suffer from bipolar disorder should know how to treat their condition with medications like Prozac and other lifestyle changes. However, it is also very important that friends, family members and other people know what they can do to help. 

A family hold hands while walking through a field

How Can I Help?

The first step you can take to helping a loved one with bipolar disorder is to learn more about this mental illness. By understanding the symptoms and signs of bipolar episodes, you are more likely to be able to help. People who have bipolar disorder do better when they have support from friends and family members. They generally experience less manic or depressive episodes, have milder symptoms and recover more quickly. [3]

a. Medical Treatment

The best way to help a loved one who has bipolar disorder is by encouraging them to seek treatment if they have not already. If your loved one does not admit the possibility of bipolar disorder, try suggesting a routine medical check or a check on a specific symptom, such as insomnia. Once diagnosed, the treatment success rate is 80 percent but bipolar disorder will almost certainly get worse if it is untreated. [1] 

Common bipolar medications can include mood stabilizers like Depakote and Tegretol, antipsychotic medications such as Abilify and Haldol and antidepressants like Wellbutrin, Zoloft and Prozac.

People with bipolar may stop taking medications because they enjoy the feelings of mania or, in some cases, they start to feel better. You can help your loved one to stay on track by reminding them of how important their medication is. [3] 

b. Listening

People who have bipolar disorder may want to talk about the challenges that they are facing. Having more knowledge about the condition can help. A common symptom of a depressive episode is feeling hopeless or worthless. Reminding people with bipolar of their positive qualities can help them recover from depressive episodes more easily. 

c. Supporting

If someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, you should reinforce your love or friendship with them. Remind them that you know they have an illness that is affecting their behavior and you are not judging them for it. Often, people with bipolar don’t want to feel like a burden so they may not seek assistance. Let them know that you are there to help in any way you can. [4] Useful support can include setting up and going along to appointments, monitoring and tracking moods and watching for signs of relapse.

Remember to let trained medical and mental health professionals intervene when needed and don’t consider it a failure if intervention is necessary.

An open daily planner with notes

d. Reducing Stress

Stress can make bipolar disorder worse and can trigger manic or depressive episodes. Ask your loved one if there are ways you can reduce their stress. Volunteering your time to do tasks they find stressful can improve symptoms. You can help by preparing meals or completing household chores. Working together to establish a daily routine with scheduled meals and bedtimes can also relieve daily stresses.

e. Planning

It is important to have an emergency plan for severe mood episodes. Share this plan with other friends or family members so that all caregivers are aware. Planning should be done with your loved one while they are well. Plans may involve what to do during an extreme manic episode such as holding credit cards to prevent financial or gambling urges. Depression plans can include removing car keys or going together to the doctor. This can be a big undertaking and you may need to prepare for your loved one becoming angry or hostile when these plans are put into place.  [4]

f. Patience

Even when a person is committed to treatment, getting better can take time. Try to be patient with the pace of recovery and try not to take it personally if the person experiences a setback. [3] Try your best to accept your loved one’s limits. They cannot just ‘snap out’ of an episode so it is important to continue to give your loved one support.

g. Remembering Yourself

It can be easy to forget to care for yourself while caring for someone who has bipolar. Keeping yourself healthy is just as important. Make sure to eat properly, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. You may find it beneficial to seek support for yourself through therapy or a support group. Finally, remember that there are specialists trained to treat bipolar and you should reach out if it is getting too much for you.

Man jogging along a road

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.