Bipolar disorder is a serious but treatable mental health disorder. Symptoms of bipolar disorder include extreme changes in mood. In addition to mood changes, someone with bipolar disorder may exhibit extreme changes in energy levels, behavior, thoughts and sleep patterns. Sometimes bipolar is referred to as manic depression.
An estimated 12 million adults are affected by bipolar disorder. Symptoms usually begin when someone is in late adolescence. Someone with bipolar may initially have symptoms of depression during their teen years. For some people, bipolar symptoms may occur earlier than that.
If you know a friend or loved one with bipolar disorder, whether it’s a new diagnosis or not, it can be challenging. You may want to learn how to help someone with bipolar disorder, but to do so in a way that is going to be beneficial for that person. Learning how to help someone with bipolar disorder first requires learning about the disorder itself. There are misconceptions people have about bipolar and preconceived notions. Learning the reality of bipolar disorder is a great first step in how to help with bipolar disorder.
Beyond that, you should also know and accept your limitations and the limitations of your friend or loved one. You can’t “fix” or “cure” someone with bipolar disorder, nor can they do that for themselves.
While you may not be able to treat their disorder yourself, that doesn’t mean that with effective treatment and support someone with bipolar disorder can’t live a fulfilling life. By researching how to help someone with bipolar disorder, you’re already taking a positive first step to being a strong support system and ally for your friend or loved one.
8 Ways to Support a Friend Through Bipolar Disorder
Some specific steps you can take to help a loved one or friend with bipolar disorder include the following:
1. Learn More About Bipolar Disorder
If you are working on supporting a friend through bipolar disorder, the first step to take is learning as much as you can about bipolar disorder.
You can dispel the myths you may believe about the disorder. You can learn more about how it’s treated and what to expect if your friend or loved one is in a period of mania or depression.
There are risks associated with bipolar disorder, including the potential for dangerous behaviors during periods of mania or suicidal thoughts or behaviors during a depressive period. The more you know about the disorder in general, the more prepared you will be to spot potential warning signs and seek the appropriate help for your friend or loved one.
2. Listen to What Your Friend Has to Say
Sometimes when someone has bipolar disorder, their feelings may be dismissed by the people around them. This may not be done on purpose or maliciously. However, it’s easy to start believing that everything someone with bipolar says is because of their illness.
Be a support system by listening to what your friend or loved one has to say. People with bipolar disorder want to feel heard, just like anyone else. You shouldn’t make them feel silly for expressing their very real thoughts and emotions.
Being a support system doesn’t mean you’re providing advice or even doing anything to be helpful besides active listening. As an active listener, stay calm, pay attention, and don’t try to engage in arguments or debates.
3. Ask Questions
Someone with bipolar disorder may not want to be treated differently, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask honest questions you may have. Rather than assuming you know something about someone’s disorder and its effects, go ahead and ask. Show that you’re interested in learning more.
Don’t assume that your friend is embarrassed or unwilling to talk about things with you. By not asking the genuine and relevant questions you have, it may seem like you’re trying to pretend the bipolar disorder doesn’t exist. If your friend becomes uncomfortable, back away from the questions.
4. Let Them Know You’re on Their Side
For someone with bipolar disorder, it can be easy to develop a “me against the world” mentality. They may feel misunderstood and no one is on their side or everyone is judging them.
Let your friend with bipolar disorder know that you are on their side. Being on someone’s side and being a champion for them doesn’t mean you agree with everything they do or say and it doesn’t mean you enable them. What it means is that you care about them no matter what.
When your friend or someone you care about is feeling down or having negative thoughts, challenge those negative thoughts. Provide them with positive affirmations and point out the good in them and their life.
5. Don’t Try to Push Them Into Something They Aren’t Ready For
Treatment is extremely important for people with bipolar disorder, but don’t try to force your friend with the disorder into something they aren’t ready for, whether that be treatment or anything else. If you see an emergency occurring or something potentially dangerous, that’s different and it may require medical intervention.
6. Plan Shared Activities
Social isolation is unfortunately all-too-common for people with bipolar disorder. Work on preventing this for your friend or loved one. You can not only provide an active listening ear but come up with activities that you can do together that can help avoid social isolation.
The activities don’t have to be overly complicated. It can be as simple as planning a daily walk at the same time each day. Small steps can make a big difference, especially when someone with bipolar feels they are having difficulty managing their symptoms.
7. Be Patient and Understanding
There’s a lot that someone with bipolar disorder can’t control and if their loved ones become frustrated with them, it can be very damaging to their mental state. It’s natural that you may feel frustrated, inpatient or even angry, but try to find ways to deal with these feelings without making them visible to your friend or loved one.
People with bipolar disorder may l not only feel frustrated with their behavior and feelings, but they could feel like a burden. Recognize even the small steps your friend with bipolar takes to get treatment and stick with a treatment plan. Rather than getting impatient that more progress isn’t being made, celebrate the small steps. Know that bipolar disorder will include many triumphs along the way as well as setbacks and that’s a regular part of the process. Accept the limitations of your loved one. They can’t “get over it” when they’re in a period of mania or depression.
8. Help Your Friend Reduce the Stress in Their Life
When someone with bipolar disorder experiences stress, it can make their symptoms worse. Help your friend reduce their stress in any way that you can. For example, maybe you volunteer to come and help them with housework a few times a week or run an errand for them. Small things you can do to take some of the burden off their shoulders can be helpful.
Finally, you need to take care of yourself as well. When you’re a support system for a friend with bipolar, it can take a physical and mental toll. There will be times where you may need to step away–not from the person, but the situation. Allow yourself the freedom to do that without guilt. Keep in mind that you need to have balance in your own life. Search for ways that you can find joy and relieve stress even when you’re helping someone you care about deal with a serious mental illness.
Tips for Supporting Someone Through Bipolar Disorder Treatment
Over time, treatment for bipolar can be effective and can significantly improve quality of life. It can take time to find the right combination of medications and optimal dosages. It can also take time to find a therapy approach that works well. If you have a loved one currently receiving treatment for bipolar, they may be frustrated at the time it takes to find the right combination or the initial symptoms they experience during treatment. Some tips to support someone through bipolar treatment include :
1. Help with Research
If your friend is getting treatment for the first time, help research potential care providers and treatment options. You can learn more about doctors and specialists in your area who work with patients who have bipolar disorder. If your friend is ready, you could give them a list of the best providers near you. You can’t force someone to receive treatment, but you can encourage it and make it as easy as possible for them.
2. Recognize Small Milestones
Because treatment for bipolar can be a process, it can feel very slow and as if it’s not working at first. When your friend or loved one makes even small steps of progress, ensure that you’re recognizing and celebrating with them.
3. Help Them Keep Up With Their Appointments
Staying on top of appointments and medication management are important when someone’s receiving treatment for bipolar. Just like you can’t make someone receive treatment, you can’t force them to go to appointments. What you can do is help them create a calendar of appointments and when to take their medications. You can also remind them of appointments and if they like maybe you can drive them or go with them if it’s something you’re both comfortable with.
4. Create a Plan for Handling Emergencies
Unfortunately, when someone is living with bipolar disorder, there may be an emergency or crises that arise. For example, someone may be having suicidal thoughts. When your friend is doing well, work together on an emergency or crisis plan.
Your friend can outline the steps they will take if they feel a crisis occurring and you can also highlight what steps you will take. A bipolar diagnosis isn’t the end of a person’s world or life. It can be filled with ups and downs, but treatment can help drastically when someone has bipolar disorder.
If you care about someone with bipolar, you’ll likely face your own set of challenges. Make sure that you take the time to care for your well-being so that you can be a strong support system and advocate for the person you care about.
If you or someone you know has bipolar disorder, which is often a co-occurring disorder with substance abuse, contact The Recovery Village and speak with a representative to learn about treatment programs and options.
Bphope. “What Is Bipolar?” Accessed January 18, 2019.
Cirino, Erica. “How to Help and Support Someone with Bipolar Disorder.” Healthline. February 9, 2018. Accessed January 18, 2019.