How to Help Someone With Bipolar Disorder
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023
Dealing with bipolar disorder is difficult for the person and those who love them. However, most people with this condition can reach a healthy balance in their moods with consistent treatment, therapy, and loving support. Loving support is where family and friends can provide invaluable help.1
Here are some things you can do to help your loved one living with bipolar disorder.
Educate yourself about bipolar disorder
You may see the advice to educate yourself about your loved one’s condition time and again. And it is important. The more you know about bipolar disorder, the better you will be able to help your friend or family member.1
Bipolar disorder is a complex mental health condition. Each person has a unique combination of symptoms and treatments that work for them. Understanding the behaviors driven by bipolar mood swings can help you stay calm.1,2
It can be hard to get a person with bipolar disorder to seek treatment. They may enjoy the extra energy of the early stages of mania or lack insight into how their behavior is a problem. When depressed, they may lack the energy to make an appointment. But the quicker the person gets treatment, the better their outcome will be.1
Once your loved one is on treatment, encourage them to stick to it consistently. This can be harder than it sounds. Bipolar drugs can come with unpleasant side effects like weight gain, emotional blunting, sexual problems, and more. Or the person may believe they need to take their medicines only during extreme episodes.1
Encourage your loved one to be honest with their doctor about the side effects they are having, as side effects are a common reason people stop taking their medicines. Often, their doctor will have a strategy to manage side effects.1
Bipolar disorder can be isolating, frustrating, or embarrassing for the person who has it, and for their loved ones. Talk openly and respectfully with each other about how you are feeling. This can help you all feel accepted and supported.2
Try to share your concerns without judgment. Truly listen to what they are saying about how they feel. Even if you do not understand their perspective, you can share your support and encouragement.1,2
Learn their triggers
People with bipolar disorder often have specific triggers that tend to lead to an episode of mania or depression. Common triggers include:1,3
- Getting too busy or overwhelmed
- Stressful life events like weddings, pregnancy, the death of a loved one, or a relationship ending
- Lack of sleep
- Health problems in addition to bipolar disorder
By learning your friend or family member’s triggers, you can help them avoid or manage them. For events that you can see coming, it may help to talk with your loved one beforehand. Ask them how you can handle the stressor together.2
Watch for warning signs
The sooner your loved one gets treatment for mania or depression, the quicker they are likely to recover. Early warning signs are just that: signs that a mood change is coming.1
Some common warning signs of mania are:1
- Sleeping less
- "Up" mood and high energy levels
- Increased activity or restlessness
- More irritation or aggression
Some common warning signs of depression are:1
- Sleeping more
- Low energy or increased tiredness
- Lack of interest in activities
- Isolating themselves
- Trouble concentrating or thinking
Offer help in a crisis
People with bipolar disorder may go days, weeks, months, or even years between episodes. But when mood swings occur, your loved one may need help. Help may be as simple as suggesting a walk outside or providing a meal.1,3
Here are some other ways you can help:1-3
- Help them think through whether they are taking on too much.
- Offer to manage their money while they are unwell.
- Help them stick to a routine by suggesting activities that fit the schedule they need.
- Take a class together to get them out of the house.
- Do not challenge their beliefs during mania – respect what feels real to them (as long as they are safe).
- Offer to make doctor’s appointments or take them to the clinic.
What is helpful for 1 person may feel invasive to another. You will need to shape your offers of support around what your loved one wants and is willing to accept.2
Patience and understanding are needed to navigate the complexities of helping someone with bipolar disorder. When challenges arise, encourage your loved one to rely on their healthcare team and friends and family. Your support can help them find the strength they need to live their best life.