The family environment is an important part of recovery for individuals with bipolar disorder. Even though it can be a frustrating illness, there are many tangible ways you can help your loved one.

Encourage Treatment and Rehabilitation

Medications and psychotherapy can help a person with bipolar disorder feel better and improve their quality of life. The first step is to visit a doctor for a thorough evaluation. If possible, it is often helpful for family members to be present at the evaluation to offer support, help answer the doctor’s questions, and learn about the illness.

Once diagnosed, an individual with bipolar disorder may be referred to psychosocial treatment and rehabilitation. You can be very helpful in supporting therapy attendance by giving reminders, offering support, and providing transportation to the clinic.

Help Create a Routine for Medication

If medication is prescribed, family members can provide support in regularly taking those medications. Taking medication can be difficult. There will be times when an individual with bipolar disorder may not want to take it or may just forget. Your encouragement and reminders can help your loved one fit taking medication into their daily routine.

Family Stress vs. Family Support for Bipolar Disorder

Family stress is a powerful predictor of relapse. Conversely, family support decreases the rate of relapse. Helping a person with bipolar disorder pursue meaningful goals and activities can be very important during the process of recovery. It is best if you try to be understanding rather than critical, negative, or blaming. It may be difficult at times, but families often do best when they are patient and appreciate any progress that is being made, however slow it may be.

For family members who have difficulty being supportive, it might be because of what they believe is causing the disorder. Studies show that family members try to make sense of bipolar disorder by determining its cause. There is a tendency to think of the causes of the disorder as either “moral” or “organic.”

Family Stress: Believing the Cause is a Moral Failure

Family members who believe the cause of bipolar disorder is “moral” believe it is caused by the individuals themselves. They may believe their family member is weak, lazy, or lacking self-discipline. This type of belief is built on an assumption that individuals with bipolar disorder are able to control their symptoms. Believing that people have control over, and, as a result, are responsible for their symptoms, can lead to feelings of anger and resentment that prevent family members from supporting their ill relative.

Family Support: Believing the Cause is Organic

Family members who believe the cause of bipolar disorder is “organic” believe in the medical model of disease, that it is a medical illness. In contrast to family members who believe in the “moral” model, belief in the medical model of bipolar disorder leads family members to believe that symptoms are not controllable, and therefore their loved ones are not personally responsible for their symptoms. This leads to greater feelings of warmth and sympathy and a greater willingness to help.

Research has shown that family members who hold a medical view of bipolar disorder are less critical of their relatives than those who hold a moral view. Your views on what causes bipolar disorder are important because critical and hostile attitudes have been shown to be predictive of relapse.

The Importance of Self-Care for Family Members

It’s common for family members to feel guilty about spending time away from their ill relative, but it’s really important that they take good care of themselves. Here are some ways to care for themselves:

  • Family members should not allow their ill relative to monopolize all of their time.
  • Spending time alone or with other family members and friends is important for their own well-being.
  • Family members may also consider joining a support or therapy group. Counseling can often help family and friends better cope with a loved one’s illness.
  • Most importantly, family members and friends shouldn’t feel responsible for handling or solving all the problems themselves. Please get help from a mental health professional if needed!

Here are some additional articles you might find helpful:

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