How to Help Someone with Bipolar Disorder

I’ve had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder since 2012. It’s been a rough journey and I’m still learning more about the condition, even now. My loved ones have been on the ride along with me, and we’ve had to learn together how they can best support me. I’ve put together what I believe helps – and a little about what doesn’t.

Learn their triggers and warning signs

Talking to your loved one about their triggers for an episode, and warning signs that one is about to happen, can help you help them. Triggers vary from stress, difficulty sleeping or insomnia, or a physical illness. Keep an eye out on major events happening in their life and how if they’re feeling overwhelmed it could lead to a bipolar episode. Ask them about their warning signs so you know what to watch out for. For instance for me, warning signs of a manic episode include; sleeping less, spending more, fast speech and having much more energy than usual.

Try not to become too controlling. Telling them what to do, how to look after themselves and taking over complete control of their life (such as their finances) can lead to your loved one pushing you away.

Let them share their experiences with you

If you can offer your support and listen free of judgement, your loved one with bipolar disorder will trust you more and will be more likely to open up if they’re struggling in the future. Listening and having empathy for someone’s situation doesn’t mean you have to totally get it. You don’t have to have been through the same thing in order to be supportive. Listening attentively can be a powerful tool.

Learn more about bipolar disorder

It shouldn’t be up to your loved one to answer every single question you have. From my own experience, it can be incredibly draining explaining every little detail about how bipolar impacts my life. If you can show you’re committed to learning more, it will show you respect love and support them. A great place to start is Bipolar UK who have tons of information about the illness. They also run support groups in the community and have an ecommunity on their website.

Make a plan

Before an episode of mania starts, make a plan together. First off, they’ll be more receptive to your ideas. They’ll be more in control and be able to look objectively at previous episodes of mania. Decide together what will help them, and what support and help they want when they are seriously ill. Write down your decisions, and keep them in a safe place for when you need them.

Help them stick to healthy routines. Again to keep them healthy, and during an episode, you could help them stick to a routine. Making sure they have regular meals and a sleep routine will either help to keep them well, or be in a healthier place when the mania/depression ends. 

When they’re manic, join in with their activities. During an episode you could do things together with them. If they are being creative, join in. It shows you’re interested in what they are up to, and means you can make boundaries on how long they spend on the activity. Again, don’t force them to stop, but remind them of other things they need to do that day, or that they need to eat, sleep and look after themselves.

Talk through their behaviour

Sometimes when someone is very ill, their behaviour can be challenging.  It’s difficult to understand and to deal with. Often when someone is manic/ hypomanic, they can be very disinhibited. Their behaviour could be embarrassing for you. It might be strange and they act oddly around you and others. It could even be upsetting or aggressive. It’s important that you talk about this, and don’t let it fester. It probably isn’t the best time to talk to them right there and then, because in a manic or hypomanic state they might not listen to reason. Actually, they almost definitely won’t. They won’t be able to see your point of view. So, its best to wait until they’re stable.

Write down what you want to tell them, so you don’t forget what it was they said or did. Writing it down can help you cope with your own feelings, without reaching boiling point. Calmly discuss their behaviour, and how their words or actions made you feel. Try not to judge or be overly critical. Remember that they were ill at the time, and would not have been aware of how much they upset or concerned you. Tell them how their actions and words made you feel. Don’t accuse them of acting in a certain way or generalise; instead turn it around and explain how you felt at the time.

Don’t panic! Some symptoms (like psychosis) can be scary and daunting to deal with. Try to stay calm and follow this advice.

if you’re worried about a loved one, make sure you seek help. This could be through their GP, psychiatrist or community mental health team. You’re able to attend appointments with them, which can help in a number of ways; you can offer support, you may have insights into their behaviour they do not, they may have trouble remembering what’s been said and you can help them make decisions about their care, or advocate on their behalf.

Lastly, it’s ok to find it difficult! It’s ok to be angry with them if they’re offensive and rude during a manic episode. It’s ok to be upset and frustrated when they’re depressed. Make sure you take care of yourself, so you’re in a better place to support them.