Since becoming involved with the bipolar community here in Seattle, I’ve had a number of people contact me who are friends or family of someone with bipolar disorder, looking for information on things they can do to help.
I think anyone who can act as a support person for someone, especially if that someone is living with bipolar disorder or other “mental illness”, is extremely admirable. Everyone needs some kind of support in their lives, and sometimes having bipolar disorder can mean needing a little bit extra.
By the time these folks get to me, they are usually worn out. At their wits end, stressed, frazzled, desperate, you name it.
So what do you do? How can a support person stay in a position that is supportive without getting burned out?
I’ve got 5 tips to share that could potentially make an enormous difference.
5. Have an emergency plan.
If your friend or loved one is at risk for suicide or exhibits potentially dangerous behaviors (during manic episodes, for example) it is really important to be prepared for the possibility of an emergency. Speaking with the person while stable (though preferred but not always possible) about their wishes of what should happen in the event of an emergency could potentially be life-saving.
The stress of supporting someone who is in crisis can be extremely overwhelming, and that stress can be ten-fold if you don’t know what to do to help. I’ve discussed this topic a little more in depth in In Case of Emergency, so if you’re not sure how to go about creating an emergency plan, please check it out!
4. Patience is a virtue.
Despite the advances in modern medicine, it is extremely unlikely an episode will subside abruptly (and if it does, that may be additional cause for concern). Unfortunately (as most of us with bipolar disorder know), we just have to wait it out. Even after emergency treatment, for example, a depressive episode could last months or longer while waiting for medications to begin working, or looking for medications that will potentially work. It is really important to realize that recovery from an episode takes time, and accepting this will ultimately help fuel the amount of patience available for the situation.
Trust me, we wish things would suddenly snap back to normal too, and there’s a possibility that the person experiencing the episode might be getting down on themselves for not recovering more quickly. The more patience you have, the less pressure they will feel, and the less stress someone recovering from an episode encounters, the quicker the recovery.
3. Be open.
Being open is a two-way street, being open about what you’re willing to share (talking) and being open about what you’re willing to hear (listening). I suggest doing both. I think the most important part of being open is not necessarily always having an “answer” to the things being shared with you. Usually just a response of understanding of what the person said is helpful, or words of encouragement and support. It is ok to give your opinion, but just remember that unless you’ve experienced what the person you’re supporting has experienced, it probably isn’t wise to jump to any conclusions. Check out A Sudden Change of Behavior in a Loved One for more tips.
This can be a difficult thing to do for anyone, so if it initially feels uncomfortable that is normal. Some people (myself included) never properly learned how to talk about what they’re feeling, and others are experiencing feeling things they’ve never felt before -so they may not know how to describe them! This can make things confusing, but including someone like a therapist in the support network can help everyone learn how to accurately describe the situation.
Being open is also important because as a support person, it is important to have an idea of how things are going. I would say keeping close tabs on somebody’s mood isn’t usually necessary, but if someone is acting unusual and doing dangerous things, or is feeling suicidal, emergency action might be necessary. The goal is to notice these behaviors sooner rather than later, so if you’re able to talk about what is going on you’ll have a much more realistic chance of doing that.
2. Share the love.
You may feel like this is something you have to take on alone, but you don’t. In fact, the more support people someone has, the easier it is for everyone. Expand the support network by including other friends or relatives (who are supportive), doctors, therapists, support groups, religious organizations, etc. Being relied on by another human being can catch people off-guard, especially if the episode came on suddenly or was unexpected. The extra responsibility can be stressful and draining, so the more people to help take on that responsibility the better.
I learned pretty early on that sharing intense feelings with someone can have something of a burdensome effect for the recipient, so I try to spread out those conversations to a number of different people. If everyone just takes a little bit of that emotional weight, I can take off the whole load without crushing any one person.
Personally, I like having a group of 4 or 5 people I really like to meet with and talk to (just friends really) when I need to talk. I also have a great therapist, but having those other folks means I can call someone to meet me right away if I need to -so no waiting to schedule an appointment. My boyfriend who I live with is my go-to emergency man and he tends to kind of keep tabs on how things are going overall. In addition to all of that, I also go to a support group. Quality is important, but quantity doesn’t hurt.
1. Put the mask on yourself before putting it on others.
The number one suggestion I make to people is to take care of yourself. Helping someone who is in trouble (especially when they’re someone you love) can mean putting yourself on the back burner, but it is really important to do the opposite. Take time to relax and do something you love, take the opportunity to laugh at a joke and hang out with a friend. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of yourself and your emotional wellbeing.
It may be that someone is considering you a support person in their lives because they value your emotional stability when they don’t have any, so it is important to maintain that for yourself, as well as for them. Failing to take care of yourself can also place pressure on the person you’re supporting, as they’re likely to take the brunt of any expressed frustration and exhaustion. It is possible they also feel guilty about taking your time in the first place, so allowing yourself to become rundown by not taking care of yourself can add extra feelings of guilt and anxiety.
For those with a network of bipolar peers, like me, I provide support to others when I’m able, and they provide support back when they’re able. Supporting our friends and peers is important, but it is probably more important to remember to support ourselves first since many of us are still at risk for potentially triggering episodes. I don’t take it personally when someone isn’t available to support me because I understand the value in needing to take care of myself first.
Providing support also means finding a balance between what you realistically can do for someone and what you aren’t able to do. By following these 5 tips, both you and the person receiving support should be better served, providing a bit more stability in a rather unstable place.