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How family and friends can help loved ones with bipolar disorder

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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

Experts say family and friends have an important role to play in supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder.

Here are some ways that families can help a person with bipolar disorder, as well as themselves.

Education: learn about bipolar disorder

“The most important thing is to educate themselves,” says Dr. Anthony Levitt, Chief of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “When someone is either depressed or manic, their behaviour and thoughts can be directed at loved ones. And their loved ones have a hard time understanding this is the illness speaking, not the person.”

Take care of yourself and seek support

Dr. Levitt also emphasizes the importance of self-care. “It’s important that you’re looking after yourself, and that your psychological needs are being met. It’s very hard to look after someone who is ill if you’re feeling ill yourself.”

He says families can turn to organizations, which can help provide information, public education events, and support groups for family members.

Be aware of behavioural changes

Another important aspect of helping a loved one with bipolar disorder is to be aware of any behavioural changes and help provide feedback to the treatment team.

“Often the person who has it, is the last one to know they’re getting ill,” says Dr. Levitt. “Sometimes, they’re also the last one to know they’re getting better.”

“Family-focused therapy, psychoeducation, and cognitive behaviour therapy share a lot of similarities in terms of educating the individual and family,” says Dr. Ari Zaretsky, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Sunnybrook. “It can help empower them so they can recognize the early symptoms, intervene early, and also adopt a certain kind of lifestyle that also increases their resilience, so that they have a lower likelihood of relapse,” says Dr. Zaretsky

Plan ahead

Having a “bad day plan” can also help families. Dr. Levitt says preparing in advance, can help families cope, “In quiet times, sit down with the treatment team and with the relative and figure out a bad day plan, so that you know exactly what you’re going to do despite the chaos that sometimes ensues.”

Click here for more information and resources on bipolar disorder.

About the author


Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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