Acting as a caregiver for someone with bipolar disorder can be challenging. We look at common difficulties and ways to cope.
It can be hard to see someone you love dealing with the symptoms of bipolar disorder — and their symptoms can have a major effect on your life, too.
Effective treatments are available. With the right support, it’s possible to reduce the burden of bipolar disorder on the person, caregivers, and loved ones.
As a caregiver for someone with bipolar disorder, you can help by learning, listening, and providing practical and emotional support. This can look like this:
- waiting in the waiting room during appointments
- alerting their healthcare team about any symptoms, fears, or substance use (with the person’s consent)
- learning to identify episodes and planning for how to respond
- encouraging them to continue with their treatment, such as setting reminders for taking medication or helping them get to therapy appointments
- having a mental health crisis plan in place
In fact, nearly 70% of caregivers reported being distressed by how bipolar disorder has affected their own life and emotional well-being.
Bipolar disorder caregivers also reported:
- high stress levels
- poorer overall health
- more symptoms of physical or mental health conditions, including depressed mood
Acting as a caregiver can bring many challenges, including facing stigma and financial difficulties. If you’re in a caregiving role, whether formal or informal, it’s important to take time and space to look after yourself, too.
Below, we look at some tips for being a caregiver to someone with bipolar disorder.
“The best way to assist someone with bipolar disorder is to educate yourself,” says Bryan Bruno, MD, a psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.
A good first step is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of bipolar disorder and how they can affect your loved one, along with the most effective treatments (medication and talk therapy).
It also helps to look out for common misconceptions about the condition.
“The ability to recognize a bipolar episode in its early stages is essential for helping the individual make it through and to limit emotional trauma to yourself and any other parties involved,” Bruno explains.
Expanding your knowledge of the condition can help you recognize the symptoms and respond effectively.
Understanding bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition characterized by extreme mood shifts. It can interfere with a person’s daily life, including school, work, relationships, and social life.
There are several types of bipolar disorder. Depending on which type the person has, their condition may involve:
- manic episodes: periods of high energy, euphoria, talking fast, and sleeplessness
- depressive episodes: periods of extremely low mood, fatigue, and loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
- mixed episodes: having symptoms of mania and depression at the same time
You can learn more about this condition at Psych Central’s bipolar disorder resource page.
Jonathan Tomlin, EdD, LPC, NCC, emphasizes the importance of showing compassion, offering support, and respecting the decisions and boundaries of those with bipolar disorder.
“We can’t take responsibility for someone’s mental health, but we can listen and offer support in the form of affection, making them comfortable, and accepting them for who they are,” he says.
“Avoid the temptation to push them into treatment if they say they are not ready and respect emotional distance when they are not capable of being present in the relationship.”
You can encourage them to get help and offer resources available to them, but ultimately support the direction they choose to go. They may place boundaries around their treatment or lack thereof, and part of caring for someone with bipolar disorder is respecting that.
Bipolar disorder mood episodes can be overwhelming for all involved, and it helps to plan ahead.
Manic episodes can involve overuse of alcohol and substances, overspending, or hypersexuality. Depressive episodes can involve self-harm or suicidal ideation. Being aware of these behaviors helps you make a plan in case your loved one shows signs they may be at risk of behaviors with harmful consequences.
“Work with [your loved one] on developing a plan for how you can provide assistance if they are ever feeling emotionally overwhelmed,” suggests psychotherapist Venishka Williams, LMHC. Short-term strategies might include going for a walk, playing a board game, or cooking together.
You can help a loved one during a manic episode by:
- doing something creative together
- helping them manage their money (with their consent)
- encouraging routines, such as regular mealtimes and bedtimes
Long-term plans can help them maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid triggers. This may include getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, and sticking to a consistent routine.
“During symptom-free periods, have conversations about how to manage future symptoms and how you can support them, including reducing opportunities for potential damage to finances and property,” says Andrea Wittenborn, PhD, LMFT, therapist and professor with Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Michigan State University.
It’s important to seek help immediately if your loved one has thoughts of harming themselves or others. Consider working with a mental health professional to create a mental health crisis plan that you can use in an emergency.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available
You can access free support right away with these resources:
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line.Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
- Veterans Crisis Line.Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
- Deaf Crisis Line.Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
- Befrienders Worldwide.This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Many people with bipolar disorder can manage their symptoms with the right treatment. Seeking professional help can improve a person’s quality of their life but it’s also a daunting step.
Some people may not feel ready to seek treatment, which can be frustrating for caregivers. If you’d like them to get extra support, consider using gentle encouragement, patience, and compassion. You can remind them regularly that they aren’t alone and that resources are available to them.
When they are ready, you can show your support by offering to drive them to their appointments and learn about any medications they may receive.
Bruno recommends being active in their treatment: “The treatment should be left to the professionals, but actively participating in getting the individual help can help them view you as an ally in a time where it may seem the entire world is against them.”
Being a caregiver can be draining and burdensome no matter how much you love your partner, friend, or family member. Williams reminds us that as much as you want to help your loved one, you also need to help yourself.
“Eat, sleep, exercise, and seek additional help as needed to keep yourself healthy while you care for your loved one,” she says.
Self-care can include talking with your own therapist. It can also help you to share your experiences and emotions with friends, family, or a support group.
Caregivers don’t have to feel alone. The following resources may be helpful:
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s Bipolar Disorder Resource Center
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance resources
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) bipolar disorder resources
- Online support groups for bipolar disorder
After a loved one receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, you may feel a range of emotions. Bipolar disorder is complicated, but it’s manageable.
Learning about the condition, having compassion, and offering support can go a long way in caring for someone living with bipolar disorder.