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Bipolar Disorder
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Depression: Depression & Related Conditions
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How Family and Friends of Those with Bipolar Disorder Can Help Themselves

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Family And Friends Can Help Each Other To Cope

Bipolar Disorder is an illness that affects the entire family - mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, husbands and wives, and children.

stressed out 3D figureManic and depressive behaviors come with lasting and very stressful consequences for both patients and their families. Families suffer directly through the exhaustion of bipolar suicidal crises, the emotional and medical risks associated with sexual infidelities, and the financial damage that comes with unrestrained spending and abandonment of any long-term financial plan. The family's focus may be shifted entirely onto patients in a dysfunctional manner that deprives other members of attention that they need in order to feel valued and important. Children of bipolar patients learn that their affected parent is unstable and adapt by being careful in their behavior and language. Young children are prone to believing that their parents' mood swings are their fault, creating new sources of stress within the family. In cases of bipolar children, siblings may feel jealous of their ill sibling creating an unpleasant and exhausting home life in which parents are always refereeing interactions. Spouses have to handle responsibilities for their bipolar spouse during times when they are most ill. Jobs may be lost and the family deprived of an important source of income. Insurances may be difficult to obtain. Normal child care routines may become severely disrupted, throwing the family into crisis. Family instability can lead to stressful holidays and family gatherings. Severe depression resulting in bipolar suicide impacts everyone related to the suicidal patient.

Family members can do only so much to prevent their bipolar members from entering into dangerous mood episodes. Beyond doing all they can to support their bipolar members, family members may also need to insulate themselves as best they can from the extremes of behavior that they may have to endure. There are several ways that this strategy of insulation can occur.

  • Family members can educate themselves as to the nature of bipolar symptoms so that the various behaviors that may occur will not blindside them.
  • Family members may participate in bipolar support groups or family therapy situations where they can talk about and process their experiences.
  • The family may find it useful to develop an ongoing relationship with a family therapist who can provide advice and crisis management services
  • Patients' direct access to family finances can be limited, or firewalls can be put in place requiring co-signatures for any substantial expenditures.
  • Regular testing for sexually transmitted disease can occur for both bipolar patients and spouses when sexual promiscuity is involved. Similarly, long acting birth control can be used to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy (in women).

Taking these and similar steps can help family members to survive a loved one's severe bipolar symptoms.