10 Ways to Help a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

By Candida Fink, Joe Kraynak

When a loved one experiences a major mood episode, you may be at a loss for what to do. Here are ten practical ways to help your loved one. Ultimately, the task of managing bipolar disorder is the responsibility of the person who has it, except for periods during which the person is incapacitated by a severe mood episode.

Find out more about bipolar disorder

Knowledge is power and provides the basis for developing the empathy necessary to grasp the challenges that your loved one faces.

Without making bipolar disorder the sole focus of your life, continue to pursue additional information and insight about bipolar disorder. Consider the following resources:

Search Google News for “bipolar disorder,” scroll to the bottom of the search results, click Create alert, and follow the onscreen instructions to create a news alert. Google emails you a notification whenever news about bipolar disorder is published on the web.

Treat your loved one with respect

Whenever your loved one becomes ill, you launch into caregiver mode, but when you’re caring for an adult, treat the person as an adult. As caregivers, people often slide into parent-child mode, treating the ill relative as a dependent. The caregiver may talk down to the ill relative, establish rules and punishments for noncompliance, or talk about the person in her presence as though she’s not even in the room.

Be careful not to infantilize your loved one, treating the person as a child. Treat your loved one as an equal, deserving of your respect.

Hone your communication skills

Effective communication not only enables you to express yourself clearly, but also makes others more receptive to what you have to say. Here are a few communication techniques, strategies, and tactics that may help:

  • Listen. Really listen to what your loved one tells you. If you can demonstrate that you heard and understood your loved one, she’ll be more inclined to listen to you. Ask questions if you’re unclear about what your loved one has said.

  • Verify that you understand. Repeat back in your own words what you heard to demonstrate that your understanding is correct.

  • Show empathy. Genuinely try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and validate his feelings.

  • Speak softly. Loud talking intensifies the emotion. Set the tone of the conversation by example.

  • Speak in “I” statements. Use “I” statements to express how you feel and what you think, so your loved one will be less defensive and less able to argue against whatever you have to say.

  • Be specific and focused. Stick to one issue or problem to keep the conversation on track. Stay in the present; don’t dredge up past issues.

  • Avoid blame, criticism, and demands. Blame, criticism, and demands undermine the spirit of cooperation required to make progress.

Become a problem solver

Whenever disagreements arise, approach the issue as a problem to be solved instead of an argument to be won. Think less in terms of issues and more in terms of interests or needs. Both you and your loved one have needs that you’re seeking to meet. The right solution ensures that everyone’s needs are met and all concerns are addressed.

Problem-solving rarely, if ever, needs to be a zero-sum endeavor in which one side has to lose something in order for the other side to gain something. Effective problem-solving involves teamwork and results in a win-win outcome, often creating value, so neither side must compromise.

Disengage when tensions rise

When attacked, most people tend to respond in kind, but keep in mind that an emotional reaction is often what bipolar disorder craves. It thrives on emotional energy. Disengage when tensions rise to prevent a situation from boiling over.

Disengagement isn’t a solution. Take a timeout with the understanding that you’ll address the cause of the conflict when you’ve both had time to cool down and approach the issue or situation more rationally.

Keep detailed records

To manage bipolar disorder effectively, you need to be able to make well-informed decisions about medications and therapies. Although doctors and therapists keep detailed records, you may not have access to those records, and information can get lost whenever you change doctors or therapists. Hence, someone on the treatment team should keep a log of all medications and therapies that have been tried, side effects, and so on, to avoid repeated trials of treatments that didn’t work or caused more problems.

Partner with your loved one

Partnering with your loved one means working together to manage bipolar. It requires effective communication and problem solving along with cooperation as your loved one works toward making lifestyle changes that promote mood stability. It means not blaming your loved one for the challenges brought on by the illness, but working together to target the actual culprit — bipolar disorder.

Depending on your relationship with your loved one, an effective partnership may call on you to make some lifestyle changes, as well, such as establishing predictable routines, going to bed earlier, joining your loved one on walks, planning healthier meals together, and (when appropriate) accompanying your loved one to doctor visits and therapy sessions.

Brush up on medications

After the bipolar diagnosis is made, finding and managing effective medical treatment becomes a primary goal. You and your loved one will learn an entirely new vocabulary and digest all kinds of new information and instructions. It can feel overwhelming. Many sources outside of your loved one’s treatment team will also provide information and opinions about medications (with or without being invited to do so). Some ways you can be helpful regarding medications include

  • Seek out reliable and accurate information about medications.

  • Take opinions and information from family and friends with a grain of salt.

  • Play a role in doctor visits, if allowed.

  • Keep tabs on medication effectiveness and side effects.

  • Team up with your loved one for medication reminders, if allowed.

Flex your expectations

Bipolar disorder often wreaks havoc on the lives of those it touches, but it’s not a death sentence. You may find yourself grieving over the losses or being angry over the injustices suffered at the hands of the illness. If you expect your life to return to what it was before bipolar disorder entered the scene, you’re likely to be disappointed. The truth is that your reality has changed.

Grieving the loss is normal, but the sooner you can begin to accept the new normal, the sooner you can begin to adjust your course and explore new paths and opportunities. Be open to new ways of thinking and living, so you can adjust your ideals, goals, and lifestyle to match your new reality.

Enjoy your life

People who have bipolar disorder tend to lug around a lot of guilt for becoming a burden to their loved ones. If you mope around feeling sorry for yourself, you reinforce your loved one’s guilt and shame, which isn’t helpful. Grieving is natural and acceptable.

Enjoy your life, both for your own sake and for the sake of your loved one. Strive to build healthy, pleasant activities into your life and get enough sleep and eat healthfully. You can’t help anyone else if you’re burnt out. As they say at the start of a flight, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before taking care of anyone else.