Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder characterized by extreme changes in moods. It is an illness that not only affects the individual but their family and friends as well. Living with a person who has bipolar disorder involves learning how to cope with the difficulties that symptoms can create, supporting the person who is ill, and finding effective ways to cope.
Depending on the nature of an individual’s illness and how well the illness is managed, the family can be affected in a variety of ways. When mood swings are mild, the family may experience some distress but, over time and with education about mental illness, they can learn to live with the demands of the illness. Caring for someone with more severe symptoms can be very stressful for the family, especially if they are not given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to cope with mental illness. It can be exhausting, especially for families with young children.
Bipolar disorder can impact families in the following ways:
Emotional distress such as guilt, grief, and worry
Disruption in regular routines
Having to deal with unusual or dangerous behaviour
Financial stresses as a result of reduced income or excessive spending
Strained marital or family relationships
Changes in family roles
Difficulty in maintaining relationships outside the family
Health problems as a result of stress
Family members may experience a variety of emotions as they learn to come to terms with having someone who has bipolar disorder. There is no right or wrong way to feel. What is important is how you handle these emotions.
As with all serious illness, families will likely feel sorrow and grief. This is a natural reaction. We care about our family members and want them to be healthy and happy. Families sometimes feel they have lost the person they knew. However, having a mental illness such as bipolar disorder does not mean that the person cannot live a successful, happy life. What it means is that the individual and their family now have a new challenge to face.
Families also worry about their loved one, as a manic episode can cause a person to behave in a dangerous and/or risky manner. One way to help reduce this worry is to develop a plan for how the family will manage in difficult times. When your family member is feeling well, sit down and talk about how things will be handled in the event they become unwell. Having a crisis plan can help to make sure that everyone knows what to expect and what to do if the person become unwell again.
Children may fear that they will inherit the illness. Older children may fear that they must manage the care of their ill sibling when their parents can no longer do the job. In any event, families will benefit from learning to manage these concerns so that they don’t get in the way of living happy and fulfilling lives.
What Families Can Do
Educate yourself about the illness
Support your family member to manage their illness
Believe in them, especially in times when they may not believe in themselves
Continue to love them even when you want to give up
"When my wife is in a manic state, I worry constantly about what might happen. I can cope as long as I know she's getting better. I can’t give up hope."
Education and support can greatly aid families who have a relative with bipolar disorder.
More information on how you can help your family member effectively manage their illness can be found in the Family Toolkit, available at: www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
About the author
The Mood Disorders Association of BC is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. The organization is dedicated to providing support, education, and hope for recovery for those living with a mood disorder or other mental illness. For more, visit www.mdabc.net or call 1-604-873-0103.