Relationship and Family Support for Those with Bipolar Disorder

By Candida Fink, Joe Kraynak

Studies show that bipolar recovery is faster and more durable when it occurs in a community that understands and supports the person who has the disorder. Ideally, when someone experiences a major mood episode, the person’s entire family becomes involved and the treatment team keeps them informed about what’s going on and how to help.

However, what often happens is that the person who has bipolar is treated and released to return to a family or community that doesn’t understand the condition and lacks the knowledge and skills needed to cope with it. If you’re a family member or friend of someone with bipolar disorder, explore the following:

  • Psychoeducation: Understanding and accepting the fact that bipolar disorder is a physical illness are two big steps toward being able to empathize with a family member or friend who has the disorder.

  • Communication skills: Even if you have no problem communicating with people in general, bipolar disorder can make it feel that typical communication is useless. You can develop and practice certain techniques to help you express yourself more effectively with your loved one. You can also develop strategies to allow for everyone to listen more fully and to reduce knee-jerk emotional responses on all sides.

  • Problem-solving skills: Bipolar may seem to be one big problem, but it’s actually a number of smaller problems, and if you approach it that way, you’re more likely to improve your success. Sometimes, what you may think is a relationship issue is just a problem that needs to be solved, not a battle that needs to be won.

  • Boundaries: You can’t control what someone else says or does, but you can decide how you respond. By establishing reasonable boundaries, you give yourself some protection from factors outside of your control.

  • Self-help: Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially is essential to maintaining the health and strength required to support a loved one with bipolar.

Families often require intensive, rescue-type support and intervention during an acute mood episode, but it’s often best to wait until the depression or mania has lifted before attempting intensive relationship or family therapy. Trying to resolve issues with someone who’s in the throes of depression or mania is likely to be counterproductive and lead to more conflict, not less.