Whether you have a parent, child, partner, or friend with bipolar disorder, supporting them can be stressful and challenging because the illness can be unpredictable. 

Many people are being scared away by misconceptions and myths which leads to isolation and loneliness in individuals with bipolar disorder. Showing up for them and not being afraid to talk about the condition can help your loved one live a better, healthier life. 

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness, formerly known as manic depression. It causes extreme changes in energy, mood, and activity levels. It is a chronic condition requiring medical treatment throughout life. 

At times, the condition makes the individual feel invincible leading to risk-taking, destructive activities such as high drug intake, unsafe sexual behaviours, and overspending. Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon. 

How to support a loved one with bipolar disorder? 

It can be difficult to know what exactly helps.

  • Inform yourself. 

Bipolar disorder comes in different types. Learning and knowing about these, their symptoms, and the treatment, will make you aware of what to watch out for. As well as help you and your loved one take the right steps. 

  • Offer to help manage the treatment.

In most cases, bipolar disorder treatment includes regular therapy sessions and medication. You may want to offer to give a lift to the sessions and remind them about their medication intake. It is best to approach this gently without pushing. 

Apart from the prescribed treatment, a healthy lifestyle is important. You may want to support your loved one with bipolar disorder in keeping up a healthy diet, keeping their body and brain active during activities. Activities may include cooking, hiking, or gardening. Or even working out, and getting enough sleep by following a consistent sleep schedule to prevent mood swings. 

Being supportive in developing a routine for day-to-day life can enhance mood stability. 

  • Ask what helps. 

Before making any offer, it is best to ask your loved one what they need. By being a good listener and showing understanding of the challenges individuals with bipolar disorder are facing, you are providing support. Your loved one often knows best in which areas of their life they need support from you. If they turn your support offer down, ask again in a few days. 

Supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder does not necessarily have to be directly linked to their treatment. Sometimes running errands for them or picking up their kids from school when they feel overwhelmed can go a long way. 

  • Offer to address concerning symptoms.

Once you learn about possible symptoms of bipolar disorder, you might notice changes in behavior and mood – your loved one may appear upbeat, more energetic, more irritable, or more depressed as usual. Individuals with bipolar disorder might not always be aware of the early signs of an upcoming mood episode. You can offer to let them know about your observations so then they can take the necessary steps.

  • Guide in cases of emergency. 

What if the symptoms are getting worse? Be aware that your loved one with bipolar disorder can experience sudden, intense shifts in their mood, self-harming behavior, and suicidal thoughts.

It is reassuring for both you and your loved one to have an emergency plan in place: Make a plan together in which you clearly outline what needs to be done in cases of emergency and what can be expected of each other. It is important to not leave them alone and make an emergency call (112). 

Support yourself whilst supporting loved ones with bipolar disorder 

Through your support, your loved one with bipolar disorder might be able to stick to their treatment plan more easily and stay more positive. A trusting relationship and having you to rely on might enable them to get the help they need. 

Keep in mind that you cannot pour from an empty cup though – taking care of yourself is essential: Make sure to step back and let a doctor or mental health professional take over whenever it is needed, and check in with your own needs regularly to ensure that you are okay. 

Reach out in case you wish for professional support/counseling whilst supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder. 

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health.