Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that causes unusual mood, energy, and concentration shifts in those it affects. Known as “mood episodes,” these periods vary from extreme highs to extreme lows and can severely impact an individual’s productivity and overall well-being.
Roughly 2.6% of all adults in the US (around 5.7 million) suffer from bipolar disorder, with around 3.4 million children and teens possibly showing early signs. The average age of onset is 25, though symptoms may develop in childhood or later adulthood.
Since symptoms of bipolar disorder can be unpredictable and severe, relationships often take a toll. This may include financial, social, and emotional impacts on family, friends, and partners.
Yet, it is the support of family and friends that matters most in managing your loved one’s mental illness.
Why Support for people with Bipolar Disorder Matters
Bipolar disorder has no outright cure, and at times can end in tragedy. Those who suffer have an increased risk of suicide — 10%-15% commit 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 “magic-treatment.”
So, what is the best approach?
Be there for your loved one. Understand their condition. Encourage other family members and friends to do the same. This means ensuring that your loved one knows they’re not alone during their treatment and that there is hope. Doing so can make a huge impact on their journey to leading a fulfilling and productive life.
Helping Your Loved Ones who are affected by Bipolar Disorder
To help your family member, partner, or friend diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the best thing you can offer is support and community. This means forming a "family-based" response and getting them the help they need.
Once diagnosed, the next steps are to help them choose a qualified therapist, and get them into recovery.
The entire group can also make themselves available to:
- Help them set up their appointments, and accompany them to and from sessions.
- Ask the therapist questions, and don't be afraid to offer insight.
- Learn to recognize signs of oncoming episodes or relapse, which the therapist can help teach you.
- Share all the information with each other. This enables everyone to understand how best to help during crisis events.
Other Things to Know about Bipolar Disorder
You can also seek advice from your loved one’s therapist on how to cope as a caregiver, which can be taxing at times.
If and when medication is prescribed, be sure to emphasize its importance. Some may feel they are “cured,” or don’t like a medication’s side effects. Some may even enjoy manic episodes. For those reasons, keeping them on track in a positive, concerned manner is critical. Do this by stressing the upside of adhering to medication, and never use punishment as motivation.
If the medication is causing unpleasant side effects, speak with your loved one’s doctor immediately. It is likely that the doctor can adjust the dose or type of medication to ease the presence of those side effects.
Even for those sticking to their treatment programs, relapse can still occur. If you notice changes in your loved one’s behavior or mood, immediately point out the symptoms and consult their doctor. 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 illness, 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 difficult, but it’s important to understand that your care and support are crucial for your loved one. Seek quality mental health help for them, 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 their best chance of leading a normal life.