Many family members I speak with struggle with the question of how to best support a loved one with bipolar. As a loved one, it can be incredibly stressful to battle with unknowns, one’s own anxiety and feelings of helplessness. People are understandably eager for information that can equip them with tools to help. I have found there are numerous things a loved one can do to be a strong support to their partner, friend or family member.
Listening to your loved one, what they are experiencing, their stressors, and what they personally find helpful and unhelpful is a very important place to start. Your initial goal is to be able to paraphrase what your loved one is telling you about their experience well enough that it makes sense to them. They feel “heard.”
It can be crucial to have someone who can listen and help clarify the confusing world of stress and emotional turmoil that faces many people with bipolar. Additionally, your loved one has the most insight into what they personally find helpful and unhelpful; taking the time to ask them and listen is essential.
In a recent blog post by John Press, he describes what is specifically helpful and not helpful to him as someone living with bipolar disorder:
“What is not helpful
“You should get more exercise…get out more…pray more…stop feeling sorry about yourself, etc.” While some of those things might help, realize that clinical depression is a medical illness. It saps all energy and motivation. I’ve literally struggled with getting up to get the TV remote. And just forget about Herculean tasks like getting the mail or washing dishes.
“Is there anything that I can do for you?”
The question is often sincere and heartfelt, but non-specific. Depression makes me muddy-minded, unable to tell you what might help. I tend to feel ashamed and self-conscious of being needy. I believe I’m a burden and a disappointment to my friends and family, even though I’m probably not.
What is helpful
When offering help, be specific
“I’ve heard that depression makes you feel really tired and small tasks seem overwhelming. I’d like to come over to vacuum and dust…do your laundry…or go grocery shopping. Is that ok?” Can I drive you to your next doctor’s appointment?
Just show up
I am tend to be reclusive when I’m depressed. We are likely to decline or cancel social commitments. But if you show up on my doorstep with pizza or my Ben and Jerry’s and a movie, there’s a high probability that I’ll let you in.
Become comfortable with silence.
You don’t need to find the right words to say. If thoughtful sentiments were the cure to depression, Hallmark would put pharmaceutical companies out of business. My daughter told me that when is suffering depressive symptoms, “the words just won’t sink in”. But if someone actually wants to be in our unpolished, unshowered, eyeore-y presence, that speaks volumes.” (http://www.bphope.com/blog/a-note-to-loved-ones/)
Ask your loved one if they are open to creating a list of their own and sharing it with you.
Educate yourself about early warning signs and symptoms. This knowledge will allow you to better support your loved one and communicate with them about their disorder. It will increase your understanding and personal access to tools. This can help you assist them in coping with symptoms as they occur and possibly prevent those symptoms from escalating.
A good resource is the Depression Workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland.
Having a plan in place and agreeing to it ahead of time can be very valuable. Knowing how and when to identify an emergency and having a plan for responding to it can reduce anxiety and increase accessibility of support in urgent times.
For example, when should you contact your loved one’s psychiatrist or therapist? When would you need to go to the emergency room? Planning for changes in symptoms that do not indicate an emergency situation can also be helpful. What kind of support would your loved one like if you noticed them becoming more depressed? Is it taking a walk with them, going to the nearest cafe in the morning, or being available if they need to talk? What actions would they like you to take if you start to noticed their mood is elevating? How would they like you to communicate with them about it? Deciding on a plan together ahead of time during stable periods allows for more receptivity during more challenging times.
Don’t forget to access your own support. I’ve always appreciated the metaphor of being told to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist your loved one when on a plane. In the same sense, when caring for someone with bipolar disorder, if you do not care for yourself first you may not be as effective in caring for your loved one. Family members can access support for themselves by finding their own therapist or support group. NAMI, the National Association of Mental Illness offers great resources and support to friends and family members.
For More Information
Press, J. (2015, March, 3). A Note to Loved Ones: How You Can & Can’t Help Me With Bipolar Depression. Retrieved from http://www.bphope.com/blog/a-note-to-loved-ones/.
10 Ways To Help Someone Who Has Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved from http://ibpf.org/article/10-ways-help-someone-who-has-bipolar-disorder.