Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is a condition involving chronic changes in mood. It oscillates between a manic high, a depressive low, and a normal functioning state. People with this condition often find themselves at the mercy of extreme changes in mood.
However, it is worth noting that this condition is far from untreatable. In fact, with the help of a good clinical psychologist, medication, and a healthy lifestyle, a person with bipolar disorder can lead a happy, productive life.
If you know someone living with bipolar disorder, it helps to be mindful of offering them your care, understanding and support. Here are four things you can do.
Knowing the Facts
Learning about bipolar disorder is the first step in helping a friend with the condition. This is the best way to understand what they are going through.
Like other mental health concerns, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder. Differentiating the truth from the false assumptions can add to your knowledge and understanding and, ultimately, help you in providing the right kind of support that your friend needs.
Here are some of the common myths about bipolar disorder that have been debunked by experts:
Myth #1: Bipolar disorder is a grave mental illness
In the past couple of decades, experts have established that there are mild forms of bipolar disorder which are, in fact, much more common than severe conditions.
The two main types of this disorder are bipolar I and bipolar II. Bipolar I is characterized by severe episodes of depression and mania while bipolar II entails severe depression but milder manic attacks.
Beyond these two, a bigger group of people experience other forms of mania that occur in shorter periods.
Myth #2: Mood swings automatically mean a person is bipolar
Experiencing extreme mood swings is believed to be one of the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder.
This is completely false. Mood swings can be caused by several different circumstances, such as a woman’s menstrual cycle, use of drugs and other substances, and even the weather. In some cases, hormonal imbalances, neurological issues, and autoimmune diseases also wreak havoc on a person’s mood.
What sets bipolar disorder apart from these reasons for moodiness is the significant change in a person’s attitude, behaviour, and personality over several days at a time.
Myth #3: Bipolar disorder is difficult to cure
It may seem so, but not really. In fact, there are many different kinds of treatments that are effective for individuals with bipolar disorder, including antidepressants, mood-stabilizing drugs, and psychotherapy.
Showing Compassion, Not Pity
Compassion is crucial for your friend’s recovery. However, many people find it hard to differentiate compassion from pity.
Avoid showing your friend that you feel sorry for then. Instead, recognise the challenge of living and let them know that you are always there for them no matter what.
Not Telling Your Friend What to Feel or How to React
Saying “cheer up” to a person with depression, or “calm down” when manic highs occur, are not the correct approaches to communicating with loved ones with bipolar disorder. In fact, telling them what to do may only cause them to feel antagonized.
Instead, ask them what you can do to help, or offer to do things that can help them feel calmer or happier. When they are no longer feeling distressed, talk about potential strategies that you can try together to help them get better next time.
Lending Your Ears
Listening to a friend in need can do wonders for people living with bipolar disorder. Lending your ears means you should listen sympathetically.
Let your friend know that they do not have to put on a brave face in front of you and that you are ready to listen whenever they need you. You should also take their words seriously, especially if they speak about self-harm or suicide.
Being There for a Friend in Need
Admitting that you need another person’s help or support is not always easy for everyone. It may be especially difficult for people who are being treated for psychological conditions. If someone close to you is living with or has a history of bipolar disorder, make sure to let them know that you are always ready to be there for them.
Justine Corry is a clinical psychologist and enjoys helping people get to the heart of what is not working in their lives. Along with Dr. Gemma Gladstone, she is co-director of the Good Mood Clinic in Sydney and has 10 years of experience within private practice.