How to help someone with bipolar disorder

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Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition that causes people to experience extreme fluctuations in their mood, characterised by ‘highs’ (mania or hypomania) and overwhelming ‘lows’ (depression). People with bipolar disorder can often find it incredibly difficult to deal with these highs and lows, and they can have wide-ranging effects, not only affecting the person with bipolar disorder, but also their family and friends.

How can you help someone with bipolar?

It can be difficult to watch a loved one struggle with bipolar disorder but there are a number of things you can do to help them to cope.

Learn about bipolar disorder

If someone you’re close to has bipolar disorder, or living with someone with bipolar disorder, take the time to learn as much about this mental health condition as possible, including the symptoms that are associated with it. The more you know and understand about bipolar disorder, the better placed you’ll be to help them to deal with their highs and lows. This will also help you to spot the warning signs for a manic or a depressive episode, as well as recognise any symptoms that seem out of the ordinary or especially severe so that you can seek extra support if needed. More often, it is friends or family who recognise the onset of bipolar symptoms, as the patients themselves can be unaware. Early intervention is the key to controlling the illness and having a good quality of life.

Be patient

If you’ve never experienced bipolar disorder, it can sometimes be hard to empathise with your loved one when they are going through the extremes of mania and depression. That’s why it’s important to be patient with them and recognise that they can’t control their moods. In addition, when they’re in the middle of a bipolar episode, your loved one may do or say things that are hurtful, rude or aggressive. This is because hypomania or mania causes impulsivity, disinhibition and irritability, and depression can also make people irritable. Try to remember that they aren’t deliberately attempting to upset you; their behaviours are symptoms of a wider mental health issue rather than being anything personal.

Bipolar disorder isn’t something that someone can just ‘snap out of’; it is a severe and enduring mental illness. Treatment and management of bipolar can often be a lifelong process. As such, try not to put pressure on the person to get better and instead, just be committed to supporting them as and when they need you, even during challenges and setbacks.

Engage in open and honest communication

Speaking openly, honestly and frequently with your loved one about their bipolar disorder is crucial to enabling them to cope effectively. Ask them how they are feeling and what you can do to help them. Share your concerns with them in a calm and loving way. Let them know that you are always there to help them and listen to them. By keeping these lines of communication open, they are more likely to come to you for support when they are experiencing difficulties. You can also help them keep mood diaries, which would show their pattern of mood changes, and any triggers that could be potentially identified.

Encourage your loved one to get help

Bipolar disorder is treatable so it’s really important to encourage your loved one to seek professional help. They shouldn’t just wait to see if their symptoms improve without treatment as their condition could become progressively worse. If you are very concerned about someone, and they are refusing help, then speaking to a professional like the patient’s GP, might be a good idea.

Support them during treatment

Once they agree to seek specialist support, offer to be involved in their treatment as much or as little as they need. You could offer to go with them to appointments, be the main source of contact between them and their doctor, collect any prescription medications that they may have, and generally provide support and help as and when they need it. By supporting them through treatment, you can help to ensure that they keep going to appointments and are invested in and committed to the process. It also reassures them that they don’t have to go through anything on their own if they don’t want to. The earlier bipolar disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis.

Have a crisis plan in place

When your loved one’s moods are particularly extreme, they may get to the stage where their safety and wellbeing are at risk and they feel out of control. It’s important to have a crisis plan in place for times like these, so that you can support them to get the help they need as soon as possible.

This may include having a list of emergency contact information for doctors, therapists and other close family members, as well as the telephone number and address of the nearest hospital. It’s also a good idea to keep a note of any medications that they are taking, as well as the dose. By having a crisis plan in place, you will be able to act quickly and effectively during emergencies, and support your loved one to get help when they need it the most. It is a good idea to involve your loved one in the crisis plan, when they are stable, as they will be able to provide valuable information on what has helped them in the past.

Look after yourself too

If you are helping someone with bipolar disorder, it’s really important to look after yourself too. Only then, will you be able to provide them with effective support.

Ensure that you make time to do things that you find relaxing or enjoyable and don’t lose sight of your own friendships, plans, priorities and goals. In addition, if you’re ever struggling to cope with caring for someone with bipolar disorder, make sure that you open up to someone that you trust about how you’re feeling and don’t be afraid to seek emotional support. It’s crucial to look after your own mental health in order to help someone else with theirs.

Websites such as Bipolar UK offer a wealth of resources on supporting someone with bipolar disorder, and also provide a range of support services to help individuals who are struggling.

Contact Priory

Our specialists at Priory possess extensive experience in assessing for and treating bipolar disorder. Contact us today to find out how we can support your loved one.

Blog reviewed by Dr Tanushree Sarma (MBBS, MRCPsych, MSc), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford

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