How To Support Someone With Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder can be distressing for everyone involved, whether you have the condition yourself or you are unsure about how to support a loved one who is living with bipolar. Bipolar is a complex mental health disorder, so it’s important for everyone involved to have a good understanding of the signs, symptoms and treatment options to ensure the best outcome.

In this blog, we’re going to look at some of the ways you can provide support to someone with bipolar disorder, all the while ensuring you are able to maintain your own wellbeing.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar is a common and severe mental health condition affecting 1.3 million people (one in 50) in the UK. People with bipolar often experience extreme mood swings ranging from mania (extreme happiness and joy) to depression. These are often referred to as manic highs and depressive lows.

Someone with bipolar may display explosive, reckless, and seemingly outrageous behaviour during a manic episode. Manic episodes can be intense and volatile, and they can cause a great deal of emotional and physical harm to everyone involved. Manic episodes are commonly followed by depressive episodes where the person feels in a low mood with no motivation and feels unable to have a positive outlook. As well as motivation and outlook, low mood can also have an impact on sleep (unable to sleep or sleep too much) and cause low energy levels as stress and/or anxiety can be the body aroused and awake. Bipolar disorder has been linked to sleep disturbances such as insomnia, which is believed to be more prevalent in those who experience mania.

Sometimes, people with severe bipolar may also experience psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions that might seem irrational to those around them. Try to remember that at that moment, what the person with bipolar experiences feels very real to them. If you are worried that they are in danger, contact the emergency services to ensure they are safe. In addition, support them to seek professional help to help them understand their symptoms better and how to manage them and consider medications that help to treat psychotic symptoms and reduce their frequency.

Types of bipolar

There are six types of bipolar disorder which range in severity and have different treatment options. They are:

  • Bipolar 1 – if a person experiences a minimum of one manic episode and some depressive episodes, but not everyone with bipolar 1 experiences depressive episodes
  • Bipolar 2 – if a person experiences at least one depressive episode and has symptoms of hypomania lasting a minimum of four days
  • Cyclothymia – if a person experiences depressive and hypomanic episodes for two years but symptoms don’t fully align with bipolar 1 or bipolar 2 (cyclothymia can develop into bipolar 1/2)
  • Rapid cycling bipolar – if a person has bipolar type 1 or 2 and experiences at least four depressive, manic/hypomanic, or mixed episodes in 12 months
  • Bipolar with mixed features – if a person has bipolar 1 or 2 and experienced depressive and manic episodes together or in quick succession
  • Unspecified bipolar – if a person experiences symptoms that aren’t fully aligned with a specific type of bipolar

The extreme nature of bipolar can make it difficult to deal with and can make everyday life hard. It affects people not just with bipolar, but those around them as well. With the right level of medical and personal support, people with bipolar can lead normal lives.

Bipolar diagnosis

A diagnosis for bipolar can take a long time, with the average timeframe for a correct diagnosis taking nine years and spanning 3.5 misdiagnoses. This is despite bipolar being almost as common as cancer and more common than dementia and rheumatoid arthritis. (Bipolar UK). This is likely due to Bipolar symptoms varying widely, making it difficult to differentiate bipolar from other mood disorders.

Bipolar is a life-long condition, although someone with bipolar may not experience the extreme symptoms consistently and may even go several years without experiencing a severe episode. It can be helpful for the bipolar patient to seek some support in noticing early warning signs for when an episode is coming on so that they can get a head start in managing it. Below, we will discuss more how you can help someone with Bipolar.

Supporting a Bipolar Disorder

How to Help Someone with Bipolar Disorder

It’s not easy to support someone with bipolar because of the complexities of the condition, but mood stabilisation is possible with the correct medication, professional treatment and at-home support. There are a number of ways you can be there for someone with bipolar, including the following.

Research bipolar disorder

Like any medical condition, the better your understanding is, the better placed you are to provide support and care. Learning about bipolar disorder through reputable resources can help you to gain a more in-depth insight into the condition and how it impacts your loved one. The information can lead you to understand signs and symptoms that indicate the onset of manic or depressive episodes and ways in which you can support your loved one to manage better.  

Communicate openly about bipolar

People with Bipolar Disorder can often face lots of stigmatisation, stemming from false information and stereotypes that are often reinforced through uninformed media outlets. As the loved one of someone with bipolar, try to be open about it. If you have some questions then talk to your loved one; this is the best way to truly understand their experience and how to support them. Talking about it will also help to de-stigmatise the condition and reassure your loved one that they are accepted and supported by you.

Due to some of the extreme symptoms that come with an episode of bipolar, the person with the diagnosis can often feel a sense of shame and guilt, particularly for the impact their condition may have had on others. Encourage them to talk about this, let them know it is safe for them to discuss how they are feeling, and try to share what those experiences are like for you too before you come up with an agreement on how best to manage when those symptoms flare up.

Being open with each other about the condition and how you feel can help both of you better understand each other and learn to live with bipolar more coherently.

Plan for manic and depressive episodes

Bipolar can be an unpredictable condition which can make it difficult to manage. However, it is possible to plan for episodes of bipolar, whether manic or depressive, by keeping a diary of past episodes, what possible triggers there were, what the early warning signs were, and what unhelpful behaviours were engaged with that maintained problems etc. These insights can help someone with bipolar plan how to manage their episodes better so that at the very least they can lessen the impact of an episode. Sitting down with a healthcare professional and making this plan with them can add value and robustness to the plan.

When making plans on how to deal with depressive and manic episodes, make sure you do so when your loved one is feeling well and isn’t experiencing bipolar symptoms. It’s also a good idea to write down our plans so you can both reference them and see what you agreed to should you need to.

A medical professional will be able to help you come up with an effective plan for episodes.

Learn warning signs and triggers

In most cases, people with bipolar disorder will have triggers and exhibit warning signs that a mood episode is imminent. For example, for some people, stress can trigger a mood episode. From this, you can learn how to avoid triggers or how to manage them where possible. When you notice warning signs, let them know in a calm and reassuring way that you’re noticing some of the behaviours that usually happen before they have a mood episode, but it’s important not to make assumptions.

We all experience a range of emotions, but displaying emotional changes doesn’t mean that a person is not stable at that time. If a person with bipolar exhibits joy or sadness, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to have an episode or are having one, and assuming so could cause offence. If you’re in doubt, communicate gently with the person to establish how they’re feeling.

Be patient and show understanding

It’s difficult to understand what bipolar disorder is like if you don’t have it, but it’s important to try. Someone with bipolar cannot help when a manic or depressive episode comes on, and they can’t just snap out of it, either. They might not know why their mood is changing so dramatically, and they might be anxious or nervous about it because they can’t control it. Be empathetic of this and show patience. It can be hard when you’re experiencing the highs and lows with them, and it can be difficult not to argue or lose your temper with them, but showing patience and understanding will go a long way to showing them that you care and that you are trying your best to support them.

Encourage them to get help

There are a number of treatments available that can help people with bipolar better manage their condition, including medication, but convincing someone that they should see a doctor can be hard. There are several reasons why someone with bipolar might not want to see a medical professional, including that they might not feel like there’s a problem. During a manic episode, what the person is feeling is real to them, even if you can’t see or experience it, so they might not realise that what they’re experiencing is mania, especially if they’re feeling intense elation and joy.

On the other hand, if they’re having a depressive episode, they might be able to acknowledge that something isn’t quite right, but they won’t have the motivation or the energy to see a doctor. As mentioned, diagnosing bipolar disorder can take a long time and misdiagnoses can take a negative toll on a person or make them feel invalidated. On top of this, your loved one might be frightened about the possibility of a bipolar diagnosis and how it might impact their life moving forward.

Encourage them to seek help by telling them how specific actions make you and other people feel (don’t generalise their actions, pinpoint specific things that they say or do during episodes that you find challenging or upsetting), and gently broach the idea of seeing a professional. If they say no, don’t argue with them. Remain sensitive to the situation, but maybe try and say things like “bipolar disorder is an illness in the same way diabetes is an illness, and it requires treatment, too”.

Set boundaries for yourself

It can be difficult to live or have a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder. Certain behaviours can be challenging and can take a toll on you, so it’s important to set boundaries for yourself. Learn how much you can deal with and know when to step back and allow a mental health professional to intervene. Taking on too much can result in your wellbeing being compromised, and this can be damaging to your health. In addition, if you’re not well, you won’t be in a position to help and support your loved one.

It’s important to remember that you can’t cure someone of their bipolar and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you can’t help them in the way they may need. Ultimately, the decision to seek professional help lies with the person with bipolar, so if they refuse to get help and you feel like you aren’t in a position to help them yourself, try not to worry too much. You need to make sure you’re emotionally stable and are getting enough sleep, rest and food so that you can offer support when you’re able to. Your own mental health also matters.

Treating Bipolar Disorder at Psymplicity Healthcare

Medical treatment can’t cure bipolar, but it can mitigate some of the symptoms and enable a person with bipolar to lead a life that isn’t dominated by their condition. At Psymplicity Healthcare, we have a team of specialists who provide treatment and support to people with bipolar and their loved ones. We are available 24/7 and provide a warm and friendly environment for all our patients.

We can provide an accurate diagnosis and detail a bespoke treatment plan comprising medication (if necessary) and holistic treatments designed to help people with bipolar disorder better manage their symptoms. We also offer guidance for loved ones. If you would like more information about bipolar disorder treatment at Psymplicity Healthcare, please contact us.

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Mavish S

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity. Since beginning undergraduate studies 13 years ago, Mavish has worked in various mental health settings within the charity, NHS and private sector. Mavish’s passion for learning and professional growth has led to a vastness of experience and accelerated growth in her career while delivering one-to-one therapy, group workshops, training and supervision for professionals and senior team management. Mavish is a keen writer and writes many of the articles on our website, as well of our self-help resources.

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