Caring for a loved one with bipolar disorder can sometimes be a balancing act. Knowing how to best support them can look different than you may have imagined.

It’s possible to enable a loved one with bipolar disorder in the sense that something you’re doing for them is ultimately not helping them. Enabling can also look like a behavior that seems beneficial but is actually fostering harm in the long-term.

The tricky part is that in caring for your loved on, you probably mean well and want the best for them.

It can be hard to say no to a loved one when they feel strongly about carrying out a certain episodic behavior that you know may be harmful to them. Still, you might not say anything against your better judgment.

Shifting the way you handle the interaction can allow you to offer your loved one support without creating additional harm. It comes down to understanding the difference between supporting and enabling.

You may be familiar with the idea of “enabling” someone who’s demonstrating unwelcome or undesirable behavior. To enable someone is essentially to promote behaviors that are generally viewed as unhealthy or damaging to them in some way.

In bipolar disorder, for example, an episode of mania can lead to impulsive behaviors like spending sprees.

Enabling a loved one living with bipolar disorder might look like repeatedly providing them with the cash to do that. You may justify it because you feel bad that they’ve already overdrawn from their own account.

Yet, providing them with more money essentially enables the behavior to continue. You may avoid confronting them about it, and even make excuses for why a discussion shouldn’t occur.

This is the essence of enabling. It provides someone with a means to carry out a behavior that’s ultimately unhealthy for them. Although it can seem like you’re helping them, there’s a difference between enabling and supporting.

For example, it’s known that compulsive spending in bipolar disorder is associated with emotional factors like low self-esteem. And researchers of a small study found that after the spree is over, it’s commonly met with anxiety, stress, and feeling even worse, creating a cycle.

Support in this circumstance might look like having an open discussion about what’s going on emotionally. A conversation held in a calm and non-judgmental way can ultimately can lead to greater awareness around the potential for harm.

Supporting someone with bipolar disorder ultimately means providing them with tools, care, or resources they need to promote their health.

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There are times when you may overcorrect your behavior and end up shifting too far in the opposite direction. If you realized that you’ve been enabling unhealthy or “bad” behaviors, it may cause you to avoid helping your loved one altogether.

There are two important distinctions here:

  • Labeling certain bipolar disorder symptoms as “bad” isn’t helpful or accurate. What you may be labeling as a “bad” behavior represents an expression of the condition itself, not a voluntary action.
  • These behaviors require support. Living with mental illness can be extraordinarily challenging and requires ongoing support from friends and family.

The behaviors that have the most potential for harm are the ones that especially require attention.

It’s important to realize that withdrawing emotionally or taking no action is also not helpful. Supporting a loved one can still come from a place of compassion and presence.

1. Learn more about bipolar disorder

Knowledge is power. Understanding the ups and down of bipolar disorder is key to managing your perspective of how you can help. Further, understanding what’s realistic to expect in terms of improvement can help manage your expectations for improvement and behavioral change.

Learning more about bipolar disorder can also help you identify the difference between exactly how you may be enabling rather than supporting. The essence of providing support is understanding the impact of your actions on their behavior.

Consider visiting the support and education hub created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to increase your knowledge of the condition.

2. Have a discussion

It’s known that talk therapy is an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. Even outside therapy sessions, opening a dialogue about what your loved one is feeling during their episodes can itself serve as support.

Asking them simple questions about how they’re feeling can foster emotional honesty. If they’re reaching for substances or other unhealthy coping mechanisms during episodes, talk to them.

Letting someone know that you’re simply there for them can make a helpful difference in their behavior and decisions.

3. Make a plan for episodes

If you know that your loved one goes on spending sprees during manic episodes, then you can plan ahead. Something you can do to support them, as one example, would be to help them develop a budget.

This may include using credit cards with a particular spending limit or only using cash during episodes. In other cases, it may simply be helping them to create a realistic schedule or daily routine.

It may also help to request contact information that you or your loved one may need if symptoms accelerate, such as their psychiatrist or therapist.

Consider asking about any medications prescribed for your loved one that, if taken at the first signs of an oncoming episode, may help to avoid the episode altogether.

4. Encourage treatment consistency

Forgetting to take medications or skipping appointments can lead to worse symptoms or episodes. Following through with treatments plays a big role in helping to manage bipolar disorder.

But sometimes your loved one may need some encouragement. Actions like driving them to appointments or organizing medications can be helpful to keep them on track.

5. Practice self-care

Remember that as a caretaker, you also need time for self-care. It can be easy to become absorbed in doing too much for your loved one and neglecting yourself in the process.

It can be helpful to check in with yourself regularly so that you can recognize when you need help too. Calling friends or family who can help you or your loved one can help alleviate some of the personal burdens that you may be taking on.

Caring for a loved one with bipolar disorder can prove to be a difficult task. When you love someone, you want to do what’s ultimately in their best interest. But this isn’t always easy to recognize.

Being there for someone can go a long way in helping them heal and grow. Remembering to take care of yourself can also give you the time and space you need to generate new perspective and ultimately build healthier habits.