Due to rampant myths and misconceptions that scare people away, living with bipolar disorder can be very isolating. That’s why showing up for a friend or relative with this condition can really help them live their best and healthiest life.
“When someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder has the support of family or friends, it can make a significant difference in their ability to successfully manage their symptoms,” says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, the chief psychologist at A Mission for Michael, a dual diagnosis treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, California, for people with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and co-occurring disorders.
Support from family and friends can also help protect a person from engaging in destructive behaviors, says Andrea Wittenborn, PhD, a professor of human development and family studies in the division of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
“Bipolar disorder can make people feel invincible and lead them into dangerous or destructive activities such as unsafe sexual behaviors, using high quantities of drugs and alcohol, and overspending,” Dr. Wittenborn explains. “It can also cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Managing these symptoms alone can be dangerous, but having a supportive network can be lifesaving.”
If someone you care deeply about has bipolar disorder, staying by their side through the ups and downs can play a vital role in their treatment.
That said, it’s not always easy to know exactly what can help. Here, experts share five ways to effectively support a loved one with this mental health condition.
1. Learn as Much as You Can About Your Loved One’s Diagnosis
Educating yourself about the different types of bipolar disorder, their symptoms, and how they are treated is one of the most helpful steps you can take. “Information is a powerful way to provide support because it creates a foundation of knowledge from which to ask helpful questions or better understand your loved one,” Dr. Marcum explains.
Knowing how symptoms of bipolar disorder can impact your loved one can help you know what to expect and what to watch for, adds Steve Guglielmi, a licensed professional counselor at LifeStance Health in Hilliard, Ohio.
When talking about symptoms of bipolar disorder, the word “mania” is used to describe a mood episode in which a person is abnormally upbeat, energetic, or irritable for at least one week, according to the American Psychiatric Association. And “depression” is used to describe a mood episode in which a person feels intensely sad, low, or hopeless for at least two weeks.
“When friends or family members take the time to learn about mood cycles and how to effectively respond to mood cycles, it can reduce the amount of distress for everyone involved,” Marcum says.
Resources with credible information about the types of bipolar disorder, as well as symptoms and treatment options, are:
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- Cleveland Clinic
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
- Mayo Clinic
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
2. Ask What Would Be of Most Help to Them
Everyone is different, which is why the best way to support someone with bipolar disorder is to ask them directly what would be helpful, Marcum says.
For instance, treatment for bipolar disorder often includes frequent visits to a therapist or psychiatrist, which can feel overwhelming. You might ask if there is anything you can do to ease the overwhelm, say, by driving them to an appointment or checking in with them before or after an appointment, she says.
Other ways you might lend support include offering to run errands, take care of some household tasks, or watch their kids, according to experts at DBSA.
“Small actions can go a long way in showing you care,” says Marcum.
3. Suggest Ways to Help Your Loved One Manage Their Treatment
Bipolar disorder is a chronic condition that requires people to take medication throughout their lives. However, nearly half of people with bipolar disorder don’t stick to their treatment regimen in the long run, according to a study published in December 2016 in the World Journal of Psychiatry.
Stopping the medications that balance their mood can dramatically increase a person’s risk of relapsing and causing a minor mood episode to become severe, even dangerous, Mayo Clinic experts say.
Asking gently — without pushing — if your loved one would feel supported if you remind them about their medication dosages and schedule, along with their therapy appointments, can help them avoid setbacks, say DBSA experts.
And if they’re comfortable with it, encourage them to adopt positive habits and self-management strategies that may enhance their professional treatment, Guglielmi says. According to the International Bipolar Foundation, helpful habits and strategies include:
- Fueling up on healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruit, fish, and whole grains, which may help stabilize mood, according to DBSA experts
- Keeping their body and brain active with hobbies old and new, anything from hiking to gardening, cooking to writing, even volunteering at an animal shelter or other venue
- Exercising daily to help kick-start energy
- Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule — going to bed and waking up at the same times every day — to help prevent mood swings
- Sticking to a regular schedule throughout the day, which can help promote mood stability, according to research published in 2016 in Current Psychiatry Reports
4. Offer to Let Them Know if You Notice Any Concerning Symptoms
It can be challenging for people with bipolar disorder to notice escalating symptoms in themselves, since these changes often occur somewhat slowly over days or weeks, says Marcum. Asking permission to let your loved one know if you notice any concerning changes could stop a potentially troublesome mood episode in its tracks, she explains.
For example, if they appear more energetic, upbeat, irritable, or depressed than usual, DBSA experts advise you to calmly voice your concerns, explain to them exactly what you’re noticing, and encourage them to see their doctor.
“Don't be afraid to talk about bipolar disorder,” Guglielmi says. “Having a trusted loved one who can be transparent in identifying changes and concerns can and will have a profound positive impact.”
5. Get Help if You Think Your Loved One May Be in Danger
If it seems a crisis may be brewing — if your loved one could be a danger to themselves or others due to sudden and intense shifts in mood, reckless or self-harming behaviors, or talk about suicide — “do not leave them alone,” says Marcum. “Call 911 or bring them to the emergency room so they can be evaluated and treated for bipolar disorder.”
Don’t let what they say or do prevent you from seeking help. And understand that their escalating bipolar symptoms may cause them to speak and act in ways that are out of character and that may be hurtful, says Guglielmi.
“These are not to be ignored or condoned, but it is during these times that your loved one needs your guidance and support the most,” he says. “Again, a trusting relationship can play a key role in getting someone the help they need.”