If you have a family member or friend with bipolar disorder, here’s how to support them while also caring for your own mental health.
Having bipolar disorder is hard. I know because I have it. I was diagnosed in 2020 (yes, in the heart of the pandemic) after nearly a decade of misdiagnosis and unnecessary confusion and suffering in my life. An estimated 4.4% of adults in the U.S. will experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives.
Bipolar disorder is challenging not only for the person with it but for those who love us. It can be hard to know what to do or how to support when our loved one is struggling or going through a manic episode or a deep depression. One of the things that makes this diagnosis challenging is the lack of education, stigma, and misinformation that exists in the world about bipolar disorder. I certainly knew very little about it until I got the diagnosis, despite being a mental health professional myself.
Today I hope to shed some light on some practical ways to support your loved one with bipolar disorder. While this article is written with the loved ones of bipolar disorder in mind, many of my musings could be applicable to anyone supporting someone with a serious mental illness. One of the struggles with bipolar disorder is that there is a lack of information on how best to support loved ones with the illness, which can leave friends, family members, and partners in the dark, frustrated, and confused. Let’s shine some light.
1. Knowledge is power when supporting someone with bipolar disorder.
First off, the more you know the easier it will be. Reading this article is a great place to start. Educate yourself about bipolar disorder. Learn the difference between Type 1 and Type 2. Figure out which type your loved one has. One writer I love to learn from about bipolar disorder is Natasha Tracy who writes all over the internet about her experience living with bipolar disorder. Personally, I like to get my information from sources who actually have the diagnosis themselves. I have also learned a lot from just typing “bipolar” into Spotify’s podcast selection. You can also learn from your loved one if they are open to talking about it with you, but don’t expect them to do all the educating.
2. Learn to set boundaries with love.
When you have a loved one with a serious mental illness, it is easy to stretch yourself thin. It’s important to know what your limits are. Learning to set boundaries with your loved one can be really important.
One example might be setting a boundary with your loved one of how you would handle a scenario where they decided to go off their medications. I tried this once in my last relationship and it ended poorly for me with a trip to the hospital. After that incident, I went back on my medications and my partner had a conversation with me where she explained that it was important for her that I be taking my medications for her to remain in the relationship. I was grateful she was supportive after the incident and was also clear that she might not stick around if I were to go off my medications again.
I’m not saying you should leave your partner if they stop their meds — I’m just saying it’s important to know what your personal limits are. No one can decide your limits for you except for you. Communicate them clearly to your loved one so they know what to expect. Try to communicate your boundaries with love and avoid giving ultimatums or making threats. This generally won’t help your loved one to get better.
3. Develop your own support network; practice self-care so you can be there when your loved one with bipolar disorder needs you.
Having your own support network is critical. There will be times when things are stressful or hard. Your loved one may have a crisis. Maybe they will go to the hospital. It’s important that you have people to rely on when things are difficult. Finding supportive people who don’t stigmatize bipolar disorder is especially important. Know who you can talk to. Especially if you are used to your loved one providing support to you, it’s important to have your own support network for the times your loved one may become unavailable due to their bipolar symptoms. If I’m manic I can still be a good friend, but when depression comes and I can’t get out of bed, it can be harder to support those around me.
4. Have a plan for bipolar crises.
It’s really important to talk through how you will handle crises before your loved one goes into crisis. It can be very hard to negotiate rationally with someone who is manic and hasn’t slept in a week. Discuss ahead of time how you will navigate crises if your loved one is experiencing psychosis and unable to communicate their needs. If they need to go to the hospital, do they have a place they’d prefer you take them?
I always recommend checking in with your loved one about how they feel about 911 calls in the case of psychiatric emergencies. Many of us carry trauma from situations where law enforcement has gotten involved in crises, so please be sure to ask. Calling 911 can escalate some individuals who are manic, for example, and simply taking them to the emergency room can be safer. Ask your loved one what kind of support they need if they are manic or depressed. It can be really empowering if your loved one is actively involved in the crisis planning process so they don’t feel like you made decisions on their behalf when a crisis hits.
5. Love them like you would anyone else close to you.
We are not fragile. We are not broken. We are not aliens. We are not bad. How would you love someone dealing with diabetes? Remember that bipolar disorder can be just like any chronic health condition when treated properly. Diabetics need insulin; I need lithium. Thinking of my mental illness just like any other chronic health condition has helped me remove the stigma from bipolar disorder and see that I am deserving of love just like anybody else. Practicing loving them from a place of non-judgment can help you continue to love them, even when symptoms are challenging.