10 Ways to Help Someone Suffering From Bipolar Disorder

How to help someone with bipolar disorder depicted in a watercolor painting

What is Bipolar Disorder?

When a loved one is diagnosed with bipolar disorder (BD), we may feel overwhelmed or powerless. But given the right tools and information, we can learn how to offer support and encourage them to seek help.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an estimated 7 million adult Americans have bipolar disorder. Sometimes called manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes severe and sometimes sudden mood changes. 

These mood changes (or mood episodes) may range from extreme highs (mania or hypomania) to extreme lows (depression). They may occur rarely or several times a year. 

For some people, episodes can be debilitating—impairing their ability to function in day-to-day activities, control their impulses, or listen to medical advice. 

Emotional support from friends and family members can be pivotal in overcoming such episodes.

If you want to support someone with bipolar disorder, here’s what you need to know. 

Bipolar Disorder and Depression: The Warning Signs to Know

Bipolar disorder exists on a spectrum, meaning everyone experiences it differently.

Ordinarily, there are three types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, and cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia), also called bipolar III disorder. If someone experiences some symptoms of bipolar disorder but does not meet the criteria for I, II, or III, they may be diagnosed with unspecified bipolar disorder.

In some cases, the disorder is induced by substance abuse, medication, or another unrelated medical condition.

Each form of the disorder differs in terms of severity and treatment methods, but symptoms can often intersect. Each is characterized by two mood episodes: mania and depression. Some people also experience hypomania, a lesser case of mania that may be mild enough that episodes go unnoticed.

Mood episodes typically do not follow a pattern. They may not occur for long periods of time or come on without warning. Sometimes, they occur at the same time, also known as a mixed state.

Manic or hypomanic symptoms include:

  • Very extreme emotions
  • Unrealistic beliefs of one’s capabilities (euphoria)
  • Abnormally energized, hyper, or upbeat
  • Talking so rapidly that others can’t understand or keep up
  • Inability to concentrate or focus 
  • Acting recklessly without thinking or caring for consequences
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Racing thoughts

Depressive symptoms include:

  • Irritability 
  • Changes in appetite and sleep
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Feeling sad, angry, or empty
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

10 Ways to Help Someone Suffering From Bipolar Disorder

When a loved one has bipolar disorder, you may have a lot of questions. You may also feel stressed or scared, especially if it’s a recent diagnosis. 

In the beginning, neither you nor the person with the disorder will have all the answers—and that’s okay. The best thing you can do is offer your support and be willing to learn alongside them.

To help you get started, here are a few ways you can support someone with bipolar disorder:

1. Educate yourself

When someone we know is diagnosed with a mental health condition like bipolar disorder, we may be taken by surprise. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there is likely no single cause behind bipolar disorder. People with a family history of the disorder are at a greater risk of developing it than those without. Abnormal brain functions and past trauma are also possible factors.

When faced with unknowns, one of the best things you can do is educate yourself. While you can’t prepare for everything, information will be your greatest tool if the unexpected happens.

2. Listen without judgment

Another way you can help is by being a compassionate listener. You can do this by offering a safe space for them to express their anxieties, frustrations, and triumphs. 

Don’t try to provide all the answers; instead, remind them of their strength and how far they’ve come. By simply bolstering their courage, you’re helping them face their fears and discover new ways to healthily cope.

3. Don’t try to fix all their problems for them

Any mental illness comes with challenges, many of which may be beyond our capabilities as a support person.

Severe depressive or manic episodes may come on without warnings. At other times, your loved one may refuse help, act irrationally, or encounter setbacks with their treatment. 

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to know your limits. Respect the advice of mental health professionals and step back when you need to.

4. Learn their triggers and avoid situations that can trigger them

Triggers are reminders of a traumatic event. They can be caused by external or internal stimuli, such as sounds, places, people, or upsetting thoughts and feelings.

Triggers may be mild, or they may be severe enough to set off an episode of mania and/or depression.

If they are comfortable with it, ask about the circumstances leading up to previous episodes to identify potential triggers. If they already know what their triggers are, ask them to share them with you so you know what to avoid.

In severe cases, triggers may prompt suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt. If you believe someone is suicidal, contact a helpline or call 911 immediately.

5. Set firm and healthy boundaries

Bipolar disorder can lead to poor impulse control and difficulty managing interpersonal relationships. Someone with the disorder may act or do things that upset you whether they’re in the middle of an episode or not.

Setting boundaries is a vital act of self-care. Boundaries also help establish your limits and keep you from enabling unhealthy and possibly dangerous behavior.

6. Don’t neglect yourself and your own mental health 

No matter what your loved one is going through, remember to take care of yourself first. You can’t help someone if you’re also mentally unwell.

Spend time apart to focus on your own life. Remember to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

7. Engage in outdoor and fun activities together

During a depressive episode, someone with bipolar disorder may isolate themselves by sleeping all day, canceling plans, and staying inside. This can sometimes worsen symptoms.

Gently encourage them to spend time outside. Regular exercise may be beneficial for some people with bipolar disorder. If they can’t manage much, suggest a walk on a sunny day or plan a fun activity outdoors that you can do together.

8. Make sure they take their medications

Bipolar disorder is usually a lifelong condition and requires management. Typically, the disorder is treated with medication. A doctor may also suggest antipsychotics, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety medication.

For treatment to work, it needs to be consistent. People with bipolar disorder may sometimes go off their medication once they start feeling better, so it’s important to check in and help them stay on track.

9. Help them find or encourage them to seek professional help

In addition to medication, psychotherapy can be effective for people with bipolar disorder. According to a study in 2014, therapy can help prevent mood episodes and tackle depressive symptoms, improving patients’ overall quality of life

When discussing professional help, do not push or force the topic. Start with a gentle approach. Remind them that mental health professionals such as therapists and counselors can provide support in ways friends and family may not be equipped to.

If they’re uncomfortable with or unable to attend in-person sessions, you can also suggest online therapy. Services like Emote provide affordable, on-the-go assistance for anyone in need. 

10. Offer to go to therapy or counseling with them

Getting professional help is a big step. You can further support someone with bipolar disorder by signing up for support groups together or by driving them to and from their appointments. 

Depending on the type of care, you may be able to join them for a therapy session. 

Get the Right Support with Emote Online Therapy

Though it is often a lifelong condition, bipolar disorder doesn’t have to be scary or isolating. Given the right kind of support, anyone with the disorder can live a full and happy life.

Here at Emote, we offer a helping hand.

Alongside one of our highly qualified therapists, you can learn how to best manage symptoms, cope with episodes, keep to a treatment plan, and more through confidential, digital therapy sessions.

Whether you’re a support person or have been recently diagnosed, our services can provide a safe space whenever you need it most. Be it through daily texts or weekly video chat appointments, your therapist is just a click away.

Cut out months-long waiting lists and sign up today for only $35 during your first week. To learn more about mental health, check out our blog or contact us.