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How to Help Someone with Bipolar Disorder

You or someone you know may have Bipolar Disorder. Know that you can offer support, understanding, and hope, even if you cannot make them well. In this article, we discuss what Bipolar Disorder is and how to help someone with the condition.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Bipolar Disorder (formerly known as manic depression) is a condition affecting the brain that impacts a person’s mood, thoughts, and behaviors. While all human beings experience day-to-day shifts in mood, thinking, and behavior, Bipolar Disorder is unique in that these experiences are typically out-of-proportion to the situation and persist for days at a time. Bipolar Disorder is found to run in families, with 80 to 90 percent of individuals having a blood relative with bipolar disorder or depression. The average age of onset for Bipolar Disorder is 25.

During active phases of the condition (termed “mania” or “hypomania”), an individual with Bipolar Disorder experiences shifts into intense feelings of joy, irritability/anger, and/or unhappiness. At the same time, they may feel as though their thoughts are racing or are difficult-to-control, that they have limitless or boundless energy, find themselves needing less sleep than usual, and may be observed engaging in behaviors that others would see as excessive, risky, or impulsive. After these more “active” phases, many people with Bipolar Disorder then shift into difficult-to-manage depressive lows.

While Bipolar Disorder is a serious mental illness that can have severe impacts on an individual’s relationships, emotional health, and work/education, treatment can help them lead full and productive lives. Treatment often includes a combination of medication management and therapy. Therapy is often essential to help a person with Bipolar Disorder manage difficult life stressors that can contribute to their illness and decrease their quality of life.  Support from family is also incredibly helpful. The best way to find out what your loved one needs is by asking direct questions, but remember to respect an individual’s space when they do not want to talk.

Perspective from a Professional

“While Bipolar Disorder is influenced heavily by biology, it is important to realize the human impact the road to diagnosis can have. For some, they have been labeled as ‘too emotional’ or not taking responsibility for something that they cannot fully control. For others, their episodes have significantly impacted the jobs and relationships they worked hard to build (and rebuild). Even treatment can instill a sense of loss, as some come to miss their ‘highs,’ even if those highs caused problems in the long run. With that, I have a lot of admiration and respect for those who seek treatment, because they are committing not only to a journey of recovery but to themselves; to confront who they believe themselves to be and rediscover what balance and quality of life looks like for them. It often takes decades for those of us without conditions such as Bipolar Disorder to do the same. That’s pretty inspiring.” – Justin Barry, PsyD, Psychologist at Diversus Health

How to Help Adults with Bipolar Disorder

Below you will find a list of ways that could help your loved one:

  • Encourage them to get help
    • If you notice these or any other problems, encourage your loved one to seek support if they have not already
    • These conversations can be difficult, so try to approach them from a place of love of and genuine concern
  • Educate yourself
    • Explore trusted online resources, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
    • If your loved one is willing to share, learn about their symptoms, including potential early warning signs or symptom relapse (which can help identify when to reach out for help sooner)
  • Help manage stress
    • Collaborate on stressful activities (e.g., chores, errands, or other to-dos)
    • Do things together that help them unwind
    • Keep to a healthy schedule, including sleep
    • Unconditional love and support can go a long way
  • Set realistic expectations
    • Remember that recovery takes time; treatment sometimes requires trial-and-error and adjusting over time
    • Treatment fatigue is real; give them space to talk about uncertainties and frustrations (and encourage they talk to their treatment team!)
    • Be patient and try to stay positive
  • Take care of yourself
    • As with any health or mental health condition: remember to balance caring for yourself with caring for your loved one
    • Seek support from family and friends, or join a support group
    • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, therapy through organizations such as Diversus Health can help lessen the load

How to Help Children and Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder

Parents and other family members play a significant role in a child’s/adolescent’s Bipolar Disorder and treatment. Building upon the previous recommendations, below are some basic things you can do to help your child/adolescent with Bipolar Disorder:

  • Be patient. Children and teens having a depressive episode may feel frequent and unprovoked sadness, while children and teens having a hypo/manic episode may show intense happiness or silliness for long periods of time.
  • Encourage your child to talk about what they are feeling and experiencing. Listen to them carefully and engage with level eye-contact.
  • Pay attention to your child’s moods and be alert to any major shifts. Your child may have a short temper or seem extremely irritable or angry.
  • Understand their triggers and learn strategies for managing their intense emotions.
  • Help your child have fun.
  • Remember that treatment takes time. Help your child stick to their treatment plan so they can feel better.
  • Help your child understand that treatment can improve their quality of life.

Individuals with Bipolar Disorder often have other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and/or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). If you or a loved one is struggling with Bipolar Disorder, request an appointment with one of our professional mental health providers at Diversus Health today.

*If you need immediate assistance, reach out to our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.

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