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Provides tips on supporting someone with bipolar disorder, including advice on supporting yourself.
Supporting someone with bipolar disorder
Seeing someone you care about going through the symptoms of bipolar disorder can feel distressing. But you can offer support in lots of ways, while also looking after your own wellbeing.
This page covers how you can:
Being open to talking and listening to someone’s experiences can help them feel supported and accepted. You could try to:
- Let them know you want to understand what they’re going through, rather than trying to fix things for them.
- Ask open questions to learn more about how they’re feeling. For example, 'what's it like having bipolar?' Or 'what do you need me to understand about it?'
- Avoid minimising their experiences. For example, saying things like ‘everyone goes through tough times’ could make someone feel that you haven’t understood how hard things are for them.
- Listen rather than give advice.
You can learn more about these experiences by reading blogs by family and friends on the Bipolar UK website.
- Talk to them about their warning signs, exploring what they may be.
- Let them know if you've noticed behaviours that often happen before an episode. For example, you could say ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been sleeping less, and I’m worried you might be becoming unwell’.
- Understand what their triggers are and how you can help avoid or manage them.
Looking out for patterns, talking, remaining calm and supportive is essential.
When they are feeling well, try talking to them about the support you can offer during a mood episode. This can help you both feel more stable and in control of what's happening.
You could discuss ideas such as:
- Noting things down that have or haven’t worked in the past. This could be by writing notes in a diary or on your phone, or by recording voice notes.
- Agreeing code words or signs that they are struggling. For example, you could plan words or symbols between you to mean different feelings. They could use these as a quick way to ask for help if they’re struggling to describe how they’re feeling.
- Offering a second opinion about projects or commitments, to help them consider whether they’re taking too much on.
- Helping them manage money while they’re unwell, if they’d like you to.
- Helping them keep a routine, including regular meals and sleeping patterns.
- Developing a crisis plan. For ideas on what to include see our information on planning for a possible crisis.
It can also help to discuss how someone wants you to treat them when they are coming out of a period of ill health. Try to follow their lead about how much they want to talk about what happened while they were unwell.
Supporting someone with their mental health can at times be very difficult, frustrating or frightening.
If someone is hearing or seeing things that you don't, they might feel angry, annoyed or confused if you don't share their beliefs. What feels real for them is real in those moments. If this happens:
- Stay calm if you can.
- Help with breathing exercises or relaxation if they feel able to try these.
- Focus on supporting them with how they’re feeling, rather than confirming or challenging their reality. Let them know that, although you don't share the belief, you understand that it feels real for them.
During a manic episode, they may do things that feel embarrassing, strange or upsetting to you. You could try to:
- Calmly discuss your feelings with them when they’re feeling able to.
- Explain how specific things they've done make you feel, rather than making general statements about their actions.
- Avoid being judgemental or critical. And don't hold onto things that were said when they were unwell. Especially if they’ve apologised or told you they didn’t mean it.
During a depressive episode, they may avoid contacting or responding to people. This can be difficult to cope with. You may feel worried about them, or rejected. You could try to:
- Avoid taking things personally if you can.
- Keep checking in, even though they might not respond.
- Send short messages that don’t require a lengthy response.
When they feel well again, you could discuss what might help you both cope with similar difficult times in future. For example, you could agree a code word, emoji or picture that they could send you to let you know they’re safe but can’t talk right now.
What feels real is real for him in that moment. It helps when I respect that and comfort him rather than trying to explain it's not 'real' for everyone else.
You might find yourself always looking out for signs that they are starting a bipolar episode. This is completely understandable. But this might not be the most helpful way to support them. You can:
- Remember everyone is different. It's possible to display a range of emotions and behaviour, while still feeling well overall.
- Try not to assume that any change in mood is a sign that they're unwell. Each person’s experience is unique. If you're not sure, talk to them to check.
- Remind yourself that setbacks are normal. They may be managing their symptoms well for some time and then have a more difficult period.
- Avoid assuming what someone can and can’t do. If you think they need help, offer your support, but try not to start handling things for them without checking that this is what they want or need.
If those around me are concerned about whether changes are symptomatic of relapse, I encourage them to ask, not assume.
It's important to spend time and energy looking after yourself. You may feel very worried about the person you're supporting, but looking after your own wellbeing means you can keep supporting them.
For example, you could try to:
- Talk to someone you trust. This could be a friend, family member, your GP, or a helpline. Bipolar UK also has support groups for family, friends, and carers.
- Involve trusted family and friends in supporting them, with their consent. Sharing out different responsibilities may make things feel more manageable. If you’re part of a group supporting someone, such as a family or group of friends, try to make sure the support is consistent.
- Find ways to relax. For example, spend time on a hobby you enjoy or try relaxation exercises.
- Pace yourself. Take things one step at a time and remember that you’re doing something really valuable in trying to support someone. So be proud of any small wins and try to celebrate these.
- Be kind to yourself when you’re struggling. It’s okay not to handle everything as well as you’d like or to make mistakes.
My husband and I both have bipolar so it was inevitable that we'd have to rely on each other at times.
This information was published in January 2024. We will revise it in 2025.
References and bibliography available on request.
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