Relationships, especially romantic ones, can be hard to navigate. This is true for everyone, including those living with bipolar disorder.
There is much to gain from healthy relationships. Sometimes, simply knowing that you have someone in your corner can help you thrive. We sometimes forget how great we are until someone shines a light on us.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder more than a decade ago, I felt ashamed, and I thought that nobody would ever understand or love me. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Throughout my life, I have had opportunities to love and be loved while living with bipolar disorder. I can honestly say that learning and practicing healthy habits allow me to live a vibrant life.
We are not flawed. We don’t need to hide ourselves. We should open ourselves to the possibility of love, and we might be surprised by what we find.
When we allow ourselves to love and be loved, our friends, family members, and romantic partners may want to help when it comes to living with bipolar, but they might not know how.
Below are six ways you can help a loved one who lives with bipolar disorder.
1. Educate yourself on bipolar disorder and how it affects your loved one
First, absorb knowledge so that you can then help your friend, family member, or partner. Learn how to navigate your loved one’s illness for the times when they are not well.
There are loads of great resources out there to help you learn about bipolar disorder.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) provides various resources to learn more about helping your loved one with mental illness, including articles, videos, local support groups, online discussion groups, a help line and more.
You can also support someone by understanding and listening with sensitivity. It can help to read about the experiences of others with bipolar disorder. You can check out some of the best blogs about bipolar disorder here.
2. Create an episode plan
As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
By creating an episode plan — for depression, mania, hypomania, and episodes with mixed features — you are not only showing your support to someone you love but also equipping yourself to help them in ways personalized to them.
Just like not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences symptoms in the same way, each person will want a plan customized to them.
It’s important that you are both clear-minded and have stable moods when you make an episode plan.
Here are some tips for creating a plan:
- Discuss what your special someone needs or wants if they find themselves in an episode.
- Ask about what triggers to avoid.
- Request any phone numbers that you or your loved one may need if symptoms were to accelerate, such as their psychiatrist or therapist.
- Ask 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.
You can also make sure that you know which professional to call if an episode becomes urgent or an emergency, or if you are concerned for their safety.
You can also ask your loved one about being an emergency contact or signing a release of information to their healthcare team. This means that you can communicate with the care team regarding your loved one’s care if an emergency happens.
Be open to trying new approaches to support your loved one while managing behaviors and keeping them safe. By collaborating, you can arrive at a plan that you both agree on.
3. Enjoy physical activities together
Regular exercise is beneficial for everyone’s mental health. Even if it’s just a swift walk after dinner, it can make you both feel good. If you accompany your loved one, they are less likely to come up with an excuse to refrain.
For added benefits, take that walk in your local park or a nature setting. A
Whether you choose to walk, jog, cycle, swim, dance, play tennis or Ultimate Frisbee, or do yoga or tai chi — enjoy being active together.
4. Enjoy the symptom-free times
People with bipolar disorder do have symptom-free periods. There’s not always a dreadfully dark cloud or blindingly bright sun on the horizon. Enjoy this time with the person you love. Enjoy your relationship.
5. Remind them that you care
Open communication and honesty are key in any healthy relationship, regardless of mental health.
Whether your loved one is depressed, manic, or having a symptom-free day, assure (and reassure) them that you accept them and love them.
This can be conveyed in a conversation, a note, a gift, going out of your way to do an act of service (washing their car, baking their favorite dessert, or massaging their shoulders), or spending extra quality time with them.
6. Be aware of episodes or moods
Every day, there is a potential for creating new relationships that can turn into a deep relationship.
For people with bipolar disorder, stressors come in many forms and can bring with them changes in mood. It can be easy for them to feel unheard. By listening and truly caring, you can share the burden your loved one is carrying.
Often, the person living with bipolar disorder doesn’t recognize that anything is different. They may not notice their lack of interest in things they typically enjoy, how a fog has seemed to have taken their smile, their pressured or rapid speech, or their grandiose plans.
If you notice the symptoms that precede an episode, remember that it isn’t helpful to label your partner. Try not to point fingers.
Instead, if you recognize the signs of depression or mania in your loved one, refer back to the episode plan you two created together to keep them out of harm.
During an episode, be sure to let them know that you love them. Remind them you are simply following the directive you two created when they were feeling better.
Love is a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the love of family, a good friend, or when romance is in the air. When we are lucky enough to find love, it is golden.
Yet, when loving someone with bipolar disorder, sometimes our other half can’t see the light. Get to know the symptoms of depression so that you may help.
Depression is a dark beast. When you are living with bipolar disorder, it knocks you on your rear-end and holds you down. If you can be something stable in your loved one’s life, you can provide a lot of help.
Try these tips to help your loved one through a depressive episode:
- Try to get them out of their home. Set up a coffee date with a friend. Bring them when you walk your dog. Go to a drive-in movie. Make dinner for the person who lives with depression. Understand that you may not get a positive response, but it helps them to know that someone wants them in their life.
- Make plans to look forward to. Make plans for anything. Making something with a date in the future allows the person to see past the here and now.
- Offer to do an activity that they enjoy. If they like to play video games, ask if you can play with them or watch. If they like watching romantic comedy movies, invite them over for a movie night with popcorn and ice cream.
- Let the music move you. Music can influence a person’s perception of the world. In fact, a
2017 reviewshowed that music therapy could be effective as part of treatment for depression. Listening to music together can also be a bonding experience for you and your loved one.
People think mania is all fun, but it often leaves a big ol’ mess. For me, mania is a siren’s call. It is great — until it isn’t.
It’s not that your loved one can’t see the light; it’s that the light is too shiny and too bright for them to remain in it for long. How can you help in this time of compulsive energy?
Be aware of manic behaviors specific to your loved one
For some people, mania can mean driving out of control or painting your face with over-the-top makeup. For others, sexual desire increases. Pay attention to the signs that indicate that your loved one is experiencing a manic episode so that you can help when you need to.
Reign back in the things that are in excess
Perhaps in the episode plan, you agreed to hold your loved one’s credit cards in a safe place so that they wouldn’t be tempted to overspend. Both over shopping and gambling can be a serious problem in a manic episode.
Or maybe there are certain websites or social media sites they’d prefer to stay off of during a manic episode.
If you agreed to this previously, you could help by keeping their phone, computer, or tablet in a safe place out of sight, or facilitating a temporary password change until their symptoms subside.
Provide an outlet
Providing an outlet for your loved one’s manic behavior shows that you support and accept them while wanting to keep them safe from risky behavior.
A great idea to wear out an individual who may be moving around erratically is to pull together an array of creative supplies for writing, drawing, and painting and let them spill their guts.
For me, I become super creative during mania. I will stay up for days with very little sleep. I think I’m the best at everything. To help empty out the racing thoughts, strong feelings, and excess energy, I usually create graffiti drawings. Try helping your loved one to find the outlet that works for them.
The key takeaway is that people who live with bipolar disorder are lovable. From time to time, we might need some help. But who doesn’t?
When someone you know opens up to you about a bipolar disorder diagnosis, listen with an open mind and educate yourself on how you can help and encourage them in productive ways.
We may need a little planning and extra listening, but all relationships require attention and care to grow and remain healthy. People with bipolar disorder are amazing humans who — in the same way people without the challenges of mental illness would — thrive in healthy relationships.
For more information on how to help your loved one with bipolar disorder, visit the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).