How to Help a Loved One With Bipolar Disorder

A woman comforting her partner.

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Bipolar disorder is a manageable condition and with proper treatment, your loved one can successfully manage their symptoms and cope with the condition's highs and lows. That doesn't mean, however, that watching a loved one struggle with the challenges of bipolar disorder isn't difficult. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help ease the burden.

If someone you care about has this condition, you know that the symptoms of bipolar disorder can present a number of challenges. Significant shifts in mood and difficult behaviors can have a major impact on the individual’s life—and yours too, as a loved one just trying to help.

While bipolar disorder can put a strain on your relationship, it's important to remember that you are an important source of love and support in that person's life. There are things that you can do to take care of yourself while you are still helping a loved one with bipolar disorder.

Learn About Bipolar Disorder

One of the first steps you should take is to educate yourself more about the ins and outs of bipolar disorder. The better you understand the condition, including its causes and symptoms, the easier it will be to recognize patterns and deal with the behaviors that may result.

Bipolar Disorder Basics

  • Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that can cause extreme shifts in mood, behavior, concentration, and energy levels. 
  • During these episodes, people may experience extremely high degrees of happiness and energy (mania) that may then be followed by profound periods of depression
  • These changes can make it difficult for people to manage their normal daily activities. 
  • There are three main types of bipolar disorder, each of which has a different pattern of symptoms. These three types are bipolar 1, bipolar 2 disorder, and cyclothymic disorder.
  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 2.8% of adults in the U.S. experienced bipolar disorder in the past year.

Some ways that you can learn more about your loved one's bipolar disorder are to read books, websites, and articles published by reputable sources.

Listen to Your Loved One

Another way you can support a loved one with bipolar disorder is to listen. Your loved one's needs to know that they can talk about the challenges they are dealing with. You don't need to have all the answers—you just need to be willing to listen openly and express support for what your loved one is feeling.

As you listen, remember that your words and your attitude are also important. Even if you cannot fully understand what they are experiencing, you should avoid doing things like blaming or getting angry. 

Try not to take the individual's behaviors personally, even if you do get frustrated. During a manic or depressive episode, your loved one may behave in ways that are unexpected or even hurtful. They may be irritable, aggressive, moody, hostile, or reckless. 

Try to remember that these actions are symptoms of the condition and not a reflection on you. As a source of support, your attitude can play a role in shaping how your loved one feels about their ability to cope and successfully manage their symptoms.

Mental health stigma can be shaming, isolating, and detrimental to treatment. Focus on staying positive and helping your loved one feel empowered.

How to Show Support

Your words matter when expressing your support. Helpful things you can say include:

  • "I'm here for you."
  • "You're not alone."
  • "You are important to me."
  • "What can I do to help right now."
  • "That must be really hard."
  • "I'm proud of you."
  • "What you're feeling is valid."

What you should avoid are comments that are shaming, blaming, or dismissive like "Just snap out of it" or "You'd feel better if you'd just do this."

Learn more about some of the things you shouldn't say to a loved one with bipolar disorder. For example, you shouldn't dismiss what they are feeling as "overreacting." Be sensitive about what you say and make sure you are not dismissing or invalidating their emotions.

Get Involved

You may find it helpful to take part in your loved one's treatment, but with the understanding that it isn't your responsibility to fix the problem. 

Treatment for bipolar disorder typically consists of a combination of medication and therapy. However, the nature of the condition can sometimes make the course of treatment somewhat unpredictable. Mood swings might make treatment adherence more difficult, so being there for your loved one during those periods can be especially important. 

The following are steps you can take to support your loved one's treatment for bipolar disorder.

Helping Them Find Treatment

Be supportive, but avoid being pushy. There are many reasons why a person might hesitate to seek treatment. Focus on being encouraging and positive about your attitude toward getting help. 

Offer to help them by driving them to appointments. You might also assist them in locating qualified a doctor or therapist who has experience treating bipolar disorder.

Spending Time Together

If you notice that your loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression, make sure that you keep reaching out. Offer to spend time with them or to go out together to enjoy an activity. If your loved one is depressed, they might refuse since their emotional state makes it hard to have the energy or motivation to do anything.

Keep offering, and if getting out of the house is too hard for them, try something simple like watching a movie or enjoying a meal together at home.

Encouraging Medication Adherence

Treatment for bipolar disorder usually involves the use of medications that help to regulate moods. Medications that are commonly prescribed to treat bipolar disorder include lithium, anticonvulsants/mood stabilizers, and atypical antipsychotics.

However, people sometimes stop taking their medications for a wide variety of reasons such as wanting to avoid side effects or believing that they don't actually need the medication. 

You can help by having a positive attitude about your loved one's medication. Remind them how important and helpful it is. You might also suggest things they can do if they are having a hard time remembering to take their bipolar medication.

If your loved one is experiencing unwanted side effects, encourage them to talk to their doctor before they change their dosage or stop taking it altogether (which can be dangerous).

Their doctor may adjust their medication, prescribe a different one, or suggest other strategies for dealing with unpleasant side effects.

Pay Attention to Symptoms

Talk to your loved one about what might be helpful if you notice that their symptoms have grown more serious. This might involve taking over some duties for them while they are experiencing an episode of mania or depression.

It might also involve helping them manage the effects of their symptoms by holding on to things that they may not want to have access to while they are experiencing mania.

Mania Symptoms
  • High energy

  • Irritability

  • Decreased sleep

  • Rapid speech

  • Loss of appetite

  • Racing thoughts

  • Impulsive behaviors

  • Grandiosity

Depression Symptoms
  • Sadness

  • Decreased activity

  • Changes in sleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Increased appetite

  • Trouble completing tasks

  • Loss of interest and pleasure

  • Feelings of hopelessness

Be Prepared

When a loved one has bipolar disorder, it is important to be ready to deal with some of the more serious and potentially destructive behaviors that the condition might cause. Having a plan can help you be ready to take action when a situation arises.

For example, people may experience thoughts of self-harm or suicide during a depressive episode. Be sure to remove things from the house that could present a danger when a person is experiencing suicidal ideation. 

If your loved one is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Impulsivity is another common symptom of bipolar disorder. This can sometimes result in poor financial decisions and large purchases that they later regret. Help protect their financial health by offering to take charge of household finances and credit cards when your loved one is experiencing such symptoms.

Establish Boundaries

It is also important to set limits for how much you are willing and able to do. Being supportive and loving is important, but you also have to know where to draw a line in terms of protecting your own mental health.

Some ways that you can establish healthy boundaries include:

  • Acknowledge that you have needs as well and you need the time and opportunity to pursue your goals and interests. 
  • Set limits on unacceptable behaviors. Clearly explain what troubles you, but focus on how it makes you feel versus blaming your loved one. 
  • Establish consequences for overstepping your boundaries and follow through on enforcing your boundaries. However, don't view boundaries as a form of punishment.
  • Protect your well-being. Remember, you have a right to protect your emotional and physical health. You can be a supportive person without allowing your loved one's condition to rule your life. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, taken advantage of, controlled, angry, hurt, or frustrated, it may be a sign that you need to establish some healthy boundaries.

Protect Your Relationship

Bipolar disorder can have an effect on a person's relationships unless steps are taken to manage symptoms of the condition. Without treatment, a person might experience difficult emotions and behaviors such as hostility, irritability, and risk-taking actions that can lead to difficulties within relationships.

Fortunately, taking proactive steps can help. Protect your relationship by learning about the condition, identifying things that trigger manic or depressive episodes, supporting your loved one's treatment, and practicing good self-care.

Take Care of Yourself

While offering support when your loved one has bipolar disorder is important, taking care of your own health and well-being also needs to be a top priority.

Remember, you won't be very helpful if you're exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed. Some things that you can do include:

  • Make time for yourself. Don't let your life become consumed with worrying about your loved one and their illness. It's OK to do what you can, but you also need to make sure that your own life, goals, and mental health aren't being overlooked. Make sure that you are maintaining your own separate and independent identity—and encourage your loved one to do the same.
  • Find people to support you. Friends and loved ones, particularly if they have taken a role of a caregiver, also need people to lean on. It's OK to ask other people for help. Maintain your relationships with other people in your life, including your friends, co-workers, and family members. Professionals can also be a source of support, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor or therapist in times of need.
  • Be aware of your limits. Remember that it isn't your job to make your loved one stick to their treatment. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition and nothing you can do is going to make someone just "get better." Your goal, as a loved one, is to offer support. Getting caught up in a cycle where you try to take responsibility for the other person or try to “fix” them can create a codependent relationship that only harms both of you. 
  • Self-monitor. It's critical to self-monitor for a tendency to blame your loved one's mood on their bipolar disorder all the time by asking questions like "Did you take your meds?" It may be that that person is exhibiting mood issues for different reasons.
  • Manage your stress. When your loved one has bipolar disorder, you may find that your stress levels get worse when they are experiencing episodes of mania or depression. You may find that strategies such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation may help you manage difficult emotions during times of stress.
  • Consider therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, but family therapy can also be helpful for families that are affected by the condition. In family therapy, loved ones can learn more about the condition and explore coping strategies that can help.

A Word From Verywell

When your loved one has bipolar disorder, you might feel worried, upset, or even guilty. Just remember that bipolar disorder is a brain-based condition and nothing you did caused your loved one’s illness.

Offer support, but be sure to take care of yourself, even if that means setting some boundaries with your loved one. It may be difficult, but finding a way to cope will help both you and your loved one manage the symptoms of this lifelong condition.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar disorder.

  2. Shrivastava A, Johnston M, Bureau Y. Stigma of mental illness-1: Clinical reflectionsMens Sana Monogr. 2012;10(1):70‐84. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.90181

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.