Being there for a friend can often feel like the natural thing to do. But there are some things you may want to consider to ensure you’re on the right track
I’ve had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder since 2012. It’s been a long journey, and I’m still learning more about the condition. But my friends have been on the ride along with me, and we’ve had to learn together how they can best support me.
So, for those who find themselves in a similar position to my friends, I’ve put together what I believe helps – and a little about what doesn’t – when you’re supporting a friend with bipolar disorder.
Learn their triggers and warning signs
Talking to your loved one about their triggers for an episode, and warning signs that one is about to happen, can help you to help them. Triggers vary from stress to difficulty sleeping, insomnia, or physical illness. Keep an eye out for significant events happening in their life, and talk to them if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
Ask them about their warning signs so you know what to watch out for. For instance, for me, warning signs of a manic episode include sleeping less, spending more, fast speech, and having much more energy than usual.
Listen to them
Genuine, active listening can be your superpower. Hearing what someone has told you means you can validate their feelings, and make them feel less alone. Ask questions to get more information rather than assuming you understand. Instead, repeat back what they’ve told you in your own words, so they can tell you’ve heard. Don’t make it about you and your own experiences. Listen and show empathy by showing interest in what they tell you through your words and body language.
If you can offer your support and listen free of judgement, your loved one with bipolar disorder will trust you more, and will be more likely to open up if they’re struggling in the future. Listening and empathising with someone’s situation doesn’t mean you have to get it. You don’t have to have been through the same thing to be supportive. Listening attentively can be a powerful tool.
Learn more about bipolar disorder
From my own experience, it can be incredibly draining to explain every little detail about how bipolar impacts my life. It shouldn’t be up to your loved one to answer every single question you have. If you can show you’re committed to learning more, it will show you respect, love, and support them. A great place to start is Bipolar UK (bipolaruk.org), which has tons of information about the illness. It also runs support groups in the community and has an e-community on its website.
Offer to help practically
Practical help can be just as vital as listening. For instance, someone knowing their place is a mess can make them feel guilty and worthless. They might need help shopping for groceries or essentials, or help to tidy their home or room. That said, it’s important not to take over and do everything. It can make them feel guilty and like a burden. Try to share out the workload if you can, or offer to do something they absolutely can’t face.
If you’re worried about a loved one, encourage them to seek help. This could be through their GP, psychiatrist, or community mental health team. You could offer to take them to appointments and attend with their consent. Attending appointments can help in several ways: you can provide support; you may have insights into their behaviour they do not; they may have trouble remembering what’s been said; and you can help them make decisions about their care or advocate on their behalf.
Make a plan in advance
Before an episode of mania starts, make a plan together. They’ll be more in control and be able to look objectively at previous episodes of mania and depression. Decide together what will help them, and what support and help they want when seriously ill. Write down your decisions, and keep them safe until needed. Help them stick to healthy routines. Ensuring they have regular meals and a sleep routine will either help keep them well, or be in a healthier place when the mania or depression ends.
Lastly, it’s OK to find it difficult! It’s OK to be angry with them if they’re offensive and rude during a manic episode. It’s OK to be upset and frustrated when they’re depressed. Make sure you care for yourself, so you’re in a better place to support them.