When a loved one is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it may be a relief to finally have an explanation for the shifting moods and swings between depression and mania that mark the disorder. It can also be emotionally overwhelming and confusing to be told that your spouse, child, close friend or family member has a mental illness; you may be left feeling helpless and hopeless about what steps to take or how to offer any meaningful support.
What can you do?
When coming to terms with your loved one’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, here are some suggestions to consider.
Know the Warning Signs:
When people with bipolar experience either the depressive or manic phase of the disorder, there may be subtle and not-so subtle warning signs preceding these shifts in mood. For some, it may take several months to reach a full manic episode, while others’ symptoms peak in a day or two. You may notice your loved one sleeping less and not feel tired the next day. He or she may be upbeat in a way that’s not realistic, act giddy or euphoric, or express expansive and unrealistic ideas; speech may become increasingly rapid.
Further signs of oncoming mania include increasingly impatient and easily irritated behavior. Functional impairment is telling, too. Is your loved one’s behavior beginning to interfere with her life, including their work, relationships and other activities? Fights with others are often signs of trouble. On the hand, symptoms of depression can include lethargy or lack of energy, lack of interest in usual activities, social withdrawal, and overeating or lack of appetite.
For a full list of symptoms, ask the care provider working with your spouse or child for patient literature about bipolar disorder.
Make a Plan:
With your loved one, meet with his or her doctor and/or care team to come up with a plan of what to do or how to proceed when symptoms appear or worsen, and what to do in case of emergency. For example, if your daughter has bipolar disorder, the plan might be to call the doctor as soon as you notice signs of elated mood and staying up all night on the internet.
If your husband has issues with overspending as part on oncoming mania, talk to him ahead of time (when his mood is stable) about taking such practical steps as setting daily limits on credit card use. Write out the schedule for medications (time of day and dosage) and post prominently. Children and many adults do well with a medication chart to stay on track.
It’s also important at this stage to talk to your loved one’s care provider what to do in case of emergency. In general, if there’s a physical threat to anyone in the household, or if your loved one is actively threatening suicide, a call to 911 is order. In other situations, you may need to bring your loved one to the hospital for his or her safety.
Because living with someone affected by bipolar disorder can be challenging, seek out support. You may already have a sympathetic friend or family member willing to lend an ear, but don’t overlook bipolar support groups especially for families. Because they experience similar struggles, members of family support groups are able to share practical tips and insights and truly empathize with each other. Where to find support groups? The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) offers both online support groups and in-person groups. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a variety of groups.
Know Your Own Limits:
When someone diagnosed with bipolar follows his or her course of treatment, life for a family can, for the most part, can continue on pretty much the same. However, supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. When it comes to feeling burnout, put in place (ideally, well ahead of feeling burnout), a plan to provide respite care when you need it. Depending on your loved one’s symptoms, this may mean going away for the weekend by yourself with a cousin, neighbor, or friend on call in case help is needed.
For added support and perspective, explore family therapy, couples’ therapy, and/or individual therapy as a way to cope.