How to Care for a Loved One Living with Bipolar Disorder

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Wednesday, April 26 2023

Living with bipolar disorder can feel isolating, demanding, and unmanageable at times. Since symptoms of bipolar disorder can fluctuate, relationship challenges can occur. This may include financial, social, and emotional impacts on family, friends, and partners. 

Yet, the support of family and friends is crucial.

Here you will learn about the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of bipolar disorder as well as tools to help you best support your loved one living with this mental health condition. 

What is bipolar disorder? 

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health condition that causes unusual mood, energy, and concentration shifts.  

Known as “manic,” “hypomanic,” and “depressive” episodes or “mood episodes,” these periods vary from extreme highs to extreme lows and can severely impact an individual’s productivity and overall well-being. 

There are two types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II.

Bipolar I disorder: 

Bipolar I disorder is characterized by manic episodes lasting at least a week or by manic episodes so severe that the person experiencing it needs immediate medical attention. Typically, those experiencing bipolar disorder will also experience depressive episodes as well. 

A “manic” or “hypomanic” episode can be defined as a prolonged expression of elevated emotions and increased energy levels. Manic episodes can last for over a week and are present every day for the majority of the day. 

A “depressive” episode is a prolonged period of low mood and limited energy levels. Generally, the loss of interest in everyday activities makes it very difficult for a person to complete tasks in their personal and professional life. 

Bipolar II Disorder: 

Bipolar II disorder is characterized by a pattern of depressive and hypomanic episodes. Symptoms of “hypomania” are less severe than the “manic” episodes presented in Bipolar I disorder. 

Hypomanic episodes are less severe than manic episodes. Generally, those experiencing a hypomanic episode will experience symptoms for a shorter period of time and the severity of symptoms is much lower. 

Here are some signs, risk factors, and causes attributed to bipolar disorder. 

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

Symptoms of a manic or hypomanic episode: 

  • Abnormally energized
  • Irritability or agitation 
  • Racing thoughts or speech 
  • Unusually poor decision-making skills 
  • Limited need for sleep 
  • Inflated sense of self-confidence 
  • Excessive appetite (hunger, thirst, or pleasure) 

Symptoms of a depressive episode: 

  • Feelings of worthlessness, sadness, anxiousness, or emptiness 
  • Loss of interest in most activities 
  • Loss of concentration and decisiveness 
  • Increased fatigue 
  • Appetite changes 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Considering, planning, or attempting suicide  

Risk factors and causes of bipolar disorder


Those with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having it themselves. Some research even suggests that certain genes are attributed to higher rates of bipolar disorder.  

Brain structure 

Some research suggests that those who are living with bipolar disorder have subtle differences in brain size and activity.

Additionally, substance use and substance use disorders may trigger changes in brain structure, which can lead to the development of mental health conditions like bipolar disorder. 

Further, it is suggested that concussions and other traumatic brain injuries can increase the risk of a person developing bipolar disorder. 

Why your support matters

Those who have bipolar disorder have an increased risk of suicide — 5-19% die by suicide and many more attempt it. Additionally, there is an increased risk of death or injury from dangerous and impulsive behaviors.  

While symptoms are manageable, there is no outright cure.

Being a supportive, compassionate loved one can make a huge difference. In the following section, you will find tips for supporting your loved one who is affected by bipolar disorder. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find free resources here.

4 things you can do for your loved ones

To help your family member, partner, or friend diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the best thing you can offer is support and community. 

Here are a few more ways to support your loved one diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  

1. Get educated 

The more you know about bipolar disorder, the more you can help. Being able to recognize the signs of manic and depressive episodes can help you quickly identify them in your loved one so you can work toward getting them help. 

2. Encourage treatment 

While it may not always be easy, motivating your loved one to pursue or continue treatment may be vital. Whether that means keeping up with prescribed medications or seeking out professional support, offering a helping hand will allow your loved one to feel supported and inspired to prioritize their mental health. 

3. Create a supportive environment 

Creating a safe and supportive environment for your loved one is crucial. Here are a few ways you can do this: 

4. Be patient and understanding 

Bipolar disorder looks different for each person, so remaining compassionate and patient when your loved one is experiencing a manic or depressive episode is crucial. 

Treatment takes time, even for those who are committed to getting better. Preparing yourself for setbacks is one of the best ways to remain patient. 

Supporting a loved one with a mental health condition, especially bipolar disorder, can be extremely mentally taxing at times. So, make sure you are caring for yourself as well. You can also seek advice from your loved one’s therapist on how to cope as a caregiver

Even for those sticking to their treatment programs, symptom relapse can still occur. If you notice changes in your loved one’s behavior or mood, immediately point out the symptoms and consult their therapist or doctor if you have your loved one's permission. Or encourage them to contact their therapist or doctor for help. Swift action is your best defense against any fully-developing episode — so don’t hesitate.

Remember not to take destructive behavior personally. It’s a by-product of your loved one’s mental condition, and it should be treated as such. 

Above all, friends and family should be supportive, positive, and available.  

The next steps

Bipolar disorder can make managing relationships complex, but it’s important to understand that your care and support are crucial for your loved one. You can seek quality mental health help for them or form a support group of family and friends for your loved one to lean on. 

Once diagnosed and under the care of a qualified therapist, your loved one stands a far greater chance of leading a normal life. 

And with the additional care and support from family and friends, your loved one has the best chance of leading a normal life.

If you or your loved one needs support, SonderMind can connect you with a licensed mental health professional. 

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