Bipolar disorder is one of those diagnoses that can be difficult for a medical professional to figure out, let alone someone who has no mental health training.
Bipolar disorder can show up in many different forms, and for both the person experiencing it and their partner, the shifts in mood can be baffling and frustrating. Getting upset can make it worse, but so can not doing anything, either.
If your partner has a bipolar diagnosis, there are a number of things you need to know in order to be a supportive partner.
- Educate yourself about the disorder. In addition to resources here on PsychCentral, the book The Bipolar Relationship: How to Understand, Help, and Love Your Partner by Jon P. Bloch, PhD, Bernard Golden, PhD, and Nancy Rosenfeld comes highly recommended. You can also watch “Inside the Bipolar Mind of Natasha Tracy” on HealthyPlace Mental Health TV for a first-hand perspective of what it is like to have bipolar disorder.
- Recognize your role in your partner’s wellness. If you make statements that indicate you are anti-medication or anti-therapy, two vital components to treatment of bipolar, your partner may not take their meds or go to therapy because of wanting to please you. If you show you are supportive of your partner’s efforts, compliance to treatment will be better.
- Know the signs of mania and have a plan in place to address it before it happens. Psychiatric advance directives are very helpful, but only if they are actually filled out while your partner is stable. Better yet, have a plan for what to do at the earliest signs of mania or depression so that hospitalization isn’t necessary.
- Reduce stress in your partner’s life. Have an honest conversation with your partner about things in their life that are causing stress, and figure out solutions together to resolve the problems.
- Help your partner establish a regular routine that is easy to maintain. People with bipolar struggle with any kind of shift, such as a change in sleeping time, eating schedule, or medication schedule. Do your best to honor that schedule.
- If your partner has any health habits that could be affecting their mood and/or medication effectiveness, encourage them to quit or cut down. This can include smoking, drinking alcohol, using over-the-counter medication, gambling, or any other behavior that causes a shift in mood.
- Recognize that your partner’s shifts in mood, while they may seem dramatic or out-of-the-blue, are part of the illness. The better the illness is stabilized, the less these shifts should happen. If they start happening more frequently, or if your partner is not experiencing some relief from medication and therapy, encourage your partner to talk to their treatment team or offer to talk to the treatment team yourself. (I would not recommend calling the treatment team without your partner’s permission. If there’s an emergency, call 911 or take your partner to the emergency room.)
- Your partner may decide to quit treatment when they are feeling better or are in a manic phase. Encourage them to continue taking their meds and going to therapy anyway, because they have a high chance of relapse if they discontinue treatment. Chances are good that they are not “cured,” and that the reason they are feeling better is because of the medication and therapy. Conversely, if they decide medication and/or therapy is not helping, encourage them to continue their treatment and discuss their concerns with their clinicians. There are many different options for treatment, and their team should be willing to change course if appropriate.
- Remember your own self-care! Therapy, support groups, understanding friends and family, exercise, and hobbies all can help!
For those of you with partners with bipolar disorder, what other wisdom can you share?