11 Ways to Help a Friend With Bipolar Disorder

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Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Those diagnosed with bipolar disordermay be at the mercy of extreme mood swings, but they are not powerless. Medication, therapy and a healthy lifestyle can help them enjoy full and productive lives, especially when supplemented by the support of those closest to them. And that’s where you come in. If a friend has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, here are 11 ways you can help:

  1. Educate yourself. The term “bipolar” is thrown around a lot these days, yet it remains widely misunderstood. (If you need proof, listen to this Fox News commentator’s offensive dismissal of bipolar disorderas a “fad” designed to game the disability system.) Spend some time learning about the disorder, and you’ll be much better able to understand what your friend is going through. Good sources include the National Institute of Mental Health, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and the International Bipolar Foundation.
  2. Channel your compassion, but ditch the pity. No one wants to hear “I feel so sorry for you.” What they do want is recognition that life holds challenges for them and that you’ll be there to help them meet them.
  3. Accept the lows with the highs. When manic, the person with bipolar disorder can come across as the life of the party. When depressed, however, they may feel as though they have lost their value in their social circle because they are no longer “fun.” Don’t add to that pressure. Let your friend know you are there for them whether they are in the heights or the doldrums, and help them aim for that middle ground.
  4. Don’t say “calm down” or “cheer up.” It can be hard to know how to react when your friend is in the midst of an extreme manic or depressive episode, but platitudes such as these are sure only to antagonize. After all, if they could calm down or cheer up, they would. A better response is to ask how you can help, or suggest some things the two of you might do together, even something as simple as going outdoors for some air. When your friend is no longer in distress, talk to them about what might help next time and prepare strategies.
  5. Be understanding when they are less of a friend than you need. Those with bipolar disorder are dealing with mood swings that can leave them irritable, overly sensitive, distracted, impulsive, and prone to explosive outbursts – all of which can be taken as a personal affront if you don’t understand its source. Try to show the same patience and understanding you would hope to receive if you were the one dealing with the illness. And remember that the frustration they feel is with the disorder, not with you.
  6. Realize that they did not bring this on themselves. Your friend didn’t choose to have bipolar disorder. It is neither a character flaw nor a weakness. Instead, research points to a variety of factors thought to be acting in concert, including genetics, environment and brain structure. This means they can’t simply snap out of it or choose to be happy, no matter how well-intentioned your advice.
  7. Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Eating well, getting enough exercise and sleep, and avoiding alcohol and drug use can help your friend maximize their control over their disorder. They don’t need you acting as their nanny, but they do need a friend who will share healthy activities with them rather than a friend who simply wants to party, especially because addiction and bipolar disorder so often go hand in hand.
  8. Listen. Lend a sympathetic ear, and let them know you don’t expect them to put on a brave face. Ask how they are doing and truly listen. If they speak of self-harm, take it seriously and be sure their therapist or doctor is informed.
  9. Don’t get angry if your friend stops taking their medicine. They may be dealing with a host of distressing side effects from the medication – sedation, weight gain, emotional blunting and sexual dysfunction, to name a few. Or they may blame the medications for feelings of depression even if the medicine is not responsible. They don’t need you to wag your finger. Your best hope for getting them back into treatment is to remain understanding about what they are experiencing but to encourage them to make an appointment with their psychiatrist straight away.
  10. Stay connected. When a friend is ill with diabetes or cancer, we know the protocol – visit, send cards, bring meals. When the illness is mental, however, we are often at a loss as to how to respond. Those who are struggling can be left feeling isolated and abandoned. There is great power in anything you do to stay connected, no matter how simple – drop by, send a note, visit if they are hospitalized, hug them, make cookies, tell them you’re there for them.
  11. Don’t give up on them. Keep making suggestions for things you can do together, and be understanding if they cancel at the last minute. Your friend may not always be able to follow through on an invitation, but they are hoping you’ll keep trying.

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