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Supporting a Family Member with Bipolar Disorder

written by: LotusSnow • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/19/2011

To a person suffering from bipolar, love and support from family members and friends makes a world of difference in their response to treatment and their success in recovery. To help a loved one we can start by learning all we can about the illness, offer hope and give encouragement.

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    Coping with a bipolar family member can be daunting. Close friends and family are affected by the unpredictable moods and behaviors of the person suffering from the illness. When the bipolar person has a manic episode, those close to them have to cope with their reckless decisions, unreasonable demands, explosive bursts of anger, and their irresponsible antics. And just like the aftermath of a tornado, the devastating consequences have to be dealt with once the manic episode has passed. During the times when the bipolar person is depressed they may neglect their responsibilities and thus it falls on those around them to pick up their slack.

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    What Families Can Do

    • Educate yourself about the disorder. Gather as much information as you can about the symptoms and explore treatment options
    • Encourage the bipolar person to get help as soon as possible - the sooner the disorder is treated the better the prognosis
    • Demonstrate understanding and support, let your relative know you are there to lend a sympathetic ear if they should need it. Communicate empathy by saying things like “You are not alone in this, I am here for you, or I may not understand what you are going through but I care about you and would like to help make things better for you"
    • Be patient, do not expect recovery to happen overnight. There are bound to be setbacks and challenges.
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    Tips for Coping with a Bipolar Family Member

    1. Learn to accept your relative's limits and try not to take their bipolar symptoms personally. They cannot control their moods, they can’t just snap out of their depressed or manic states. When they are in a manic state they may be reckless, cruel, critical and even aggressive. This can be hurtful. And when they are in a depressed state they can be hostile, moody, and irritable and they may reject your help
    2. Accept that you are human and you have your own limits. You cannot rescue a person with bipolar disorder. You can only offer support; ultimately recovery is up to the individual
    3. Prepare for destructive behaviors. Plan ahead on how to handle different situations. Compile a treatment contract that gives you some authority to protect them when their symptoms flare up. Perhaps you can agree on steps such as removing cash, debit and credit cards from their wallets, or hold their car keys for them
    4. Stress busting. Stress can worsen bipolar symptoms. Find ways to help your family member reduce the stressors in his or her life.
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    Taking Care of Yourself

    When taking care of a loved one who is bipolar, it is easy to get lost in their drama and neglect your own needs. In order to properly care for them, you have to learn to take care of yourself, both emotionally and physically, so as not to risk a burnout.

    1) Remember to focus on your own life. Supporting a bipolar relative often involves making some life adjustments, but make sure that you do not lose sight of your own priorities and goals. Continue to nurture your friendships with others, make plans and participate in activities that make you happy

    2) Do not try to be a superman or superwoman, make sure you get the emotional support you need to cope. Taking care of someone with bipolar disorder can be an isolating and emotionally painful task. If you need to, talk to someone you can trust, confide in that person about what you are going through. However, if you are not ready to tell the “world" there are other options such as getting your own therapy or joining a support group

    3) Set your boundaries, set your limits. Assess your own capabilities and be realistic about the type of care you are willing and capable of providing without feeling overwhelmed and resentful. If you let bipolar dominate and take over your life, it is unhealthy for both you and your relative.

    4) Manage your stress. Eating right, getting enough sleep, meditation, visualization techniques can all help you keep stress under control.

    There is hope:

    The road may be long and difficult but don’t give up hope. Treatments do work and people with bipolar disorder can lead functional, productive and happy lives.

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    References

    1. Helping a Loved One with Bipolar, www.helpguide.org/mental/bipolar_disorder_family_friends_support.htm
    2. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_bipolar_overview
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