Being a family member, significant other, friend or roommate of a person with bipolar disorder can be confusing. You may not know what to do when you watch your significant other suffer from racing thoughts, sleeplessness, impulsivity, psychosis, depression and anxiety. You may try to encourage your daughter to take her medications only to have her refuse. Perhaps you have a parent whose job is in danger because of their erratic behavior. Knowing the right way to help is not always easy, but as someone who cares about a person with bipolar disorder, you can learn how to be an invaluable source of support while maintaining your own wellbeing.
Bipolar disorder is a physiological illness, like diabetes or high blood pressure, but it has behavioral and emotional manifestations. Like other diseases, it can often be treated effectively through medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. Unlike some other diseases, it is frequently misunderstood and stigmatized. The first step in learning how to care for, or live with, someone with bipolar disorder, is to learn as much as you can about the illness. Read books, research online, join a support group, or ask your loved one if you can accompany them to a psychiatrist visit.
You are an integral part of your friend or family member’s treatment plan. In some cases you may be given permission to come to psychiatrist visits, to speak with a case manager, etc. In other cases you will be on the periphery, simply reminding your loved one of the importance of taking their medications and helping them make lifestyle choices to manage stress and symptoms. You may be the first one to notice that your loved one is feeling “off” and can then call their doctor or therapist to make sure that this is addressed. When your loved one is doing well, consider sitting down with them and laying out what your role will be. Agreeing together on a plan of action for what to do when they are manic or depressed can help you avoid future conflicts and ensure they receive proper care.
Learning to recognize the patterns in your loved one’s behaviors and emotions can help you to support them and to intervene when necessary. If stress is a trigger, as it is for many, help them learn to manage their stress. Be conscious of the likelihood of their bipolar disorder symptoms worsening during stressful times.
If your loved one seems severely depressed, hopeless, or preoccupied with death, take it seriously. They may be suicidal. Take them to the nearest emergency room and call their psychiatrist or therapist. When they are manic (as evidenced by racing thoughts, paranoia, lack of need for sleep, increased energy, impulsivity, grandiosity, and other symptoms) you should call their psychiatrist promptly. You can also help guide them towards making safe decisions, but make sure you are also protecting yourself and the rest of the family, especially if they are paranoid or seem out of touch with reality. Hospitalization may be necessary during particularly severe manic episodes.
For most people, bipolar disorder cycles between times when things are easier and times when things are harder. You will likely have many times when your friendship or family life feels normal and positive. You will also have some times when things are more challenging. You need emotional and social support as much as your friend or family member with bipolar disorder does, as taking care of someone with mental illness can be challenging. There are many local and online support groups for family members of those with bipolar disorder or mental illness. There are also agencies in some communities that can help manage your loved one’s care and help the family access support. Maintaining your own boundaries is as important as showing loving care and patience. A caregiver must always care for themselves first and foremost if they wish to have the ability to care for others.