Challenges for Caregivers of Bipolar Disorder
Individuals with bipolar disorder have severe mood swings, which can last several weeks or months. These can include feelings of intense depression and despair, manic feelings of extreme happiness, and mixed moods such as depression with restlessness and overactivity.
About one percent of adults will experience bipolar disorder at some point, usually starting during or after the teenage years. Men and women are equally likely to be affected. It causes significant distress, disability and marital problems, and is linked to abuse of alcohol, drugs and other substances.
Caregivers of people with bipolar disorder face different challenges than with other illnesses. The caregiver will be affected by cultural and social attitudes to the illness, and these have important effects on the level of burden experienced. Manic episodes of the illness are very disruptive to daily life, work and family relationships. Great demands may be placed on family members to be involved in caregiving. These demands can persist even during remission, where residual symptoms are often still present.
Psychiatrist Dr. Alan Ogilvie of Warneford Hospital, Oxford, UK, believes, “The objective burden on caregivers of patients with bipolar disorder is significantly higher than for those with unipolar [straightforward] depression.” Due to the cyclical nature of the illness and the stresses arising from manic and hypomanic episodes, it “causes uncertainty regarding how best to structure family interventions to optimally alleviate burden.”
Studies on U.S. caregiver burden in bipolar disorder suggest that the burden is “high and largely neglected.” As well as depression, caregivers can experience poor physical health, low social support, disruption of household routine, financial strain, and can neglect their own health needs.
According to Eduard Vieta, MD, and colleagues at the University of Barcelona, Spain, the most burdensome aspects for caregivers are the patient’s behavior, especially hyperactivity, irritability, sadness and withdrawal. Caregivers are also concerned over the patient’s work or study, and social relationships. “Caregivers are especially distressed by the way the illness has affected their emotional health and their life in general,” say the researchers.
A 2008 study from The Netherlands found that caregivers try to cope in different ways, but those who improve their coping skills over time experience a lower burden. The researchers add that different phases in the caregiving process require different coping skills. They believe that caregivers in distress should be given support and taught skills to cope effectively in order to stay well.
As well as access to education and support, caregivers can benefit from easier access to the treatment team. Where possible in terms of confidentiality, email has the potential to connect caregivers with the team. Internet-based support and educational programs can also overcome obstacles to access for caregivers, especially in rural areas.