Dealing with someone who has bipolar disorder requires knowledge, understanding and an extra dose of patience. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of depression and mania that can lead to irresponsible and risky behaviors, which can be challenging to live with. Despite their best intentions, many family members and friends of people affected with this illness don't really understand the condition or how to provide much needed support, says Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA, founder and president of the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF).

Say It Forward Campaign

In order to increase the public's knowledgeable about bipolar disorder and dispel the stigma that exists around it, IBPF and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance are partnering to promote the Say it Forward campaign. This international social media effort, which runs from September 30 to October 10, 2013, provides an avenue to share key facts about mental and emotional illnesses with a broader audience via email and social media websites.

"Say it Forward allows you send a message to your friends and family that will educate them about the mental illness and hopefully diminish the devastating effects of the negativity surrounding it," Walker says. The goal for this year's effort is to reach 20,000 people around the world. The campaign takes place during International Bipolar Awareness Day (October 10, 2013), so it's also a particularly timely opportunity to reach out to people affected by the condition and encourage them to explore the array of treatment options that exist today.

What Not to Say

Hurtful words can be painful, too and while the focus of the campaign is on what you should say to raise awareness of bipolar disorder, Walker also stresses that what you shouldn't say to people struggling with the symptoms of this condition is just as essential.

Understanding that bipolar disorder is an illness that affects the brain—and the loved one's behavior—may help you act with more compassion and patience. With that in mind, here are statements Walker suggests avoiding:

1. You must be "crazy" or "mentally ill."
Blanket pronouncements or stereotypes such as these can make someone with bipolar disease feel badly about herself and frustrated, too. Referring to someone as crazy is a judgment that conveys you find her lacking as a person. Remember that bipolar disease is an actual disease just like cancer and diabetes, and the person living with it deserves the same type of compassion—not judgment—that you would offer to someone with these or other illnesses.

2. Why don't you have a more positive attitude? Such a loaded question can make a person feel as though she should be better able to control her condition and since she can't, she may feel ashamed of herself. To avoid causing this type of reaction, it's important to know that the symptoms of bipolar disease can't be "willed away" any more than you can will away the symptoms of the flu. The good news is that a combination of medication and cognitive or behavioral therapy can be effective in helping to manage the condition. And when the person feels better, her attitude will likely be better, too.

3. You need to have better control of yourself.
Bipolar disease often leads to episodes of hyperactivity or mania (such as going on an excessive shopping spree or trip) that he or she isn't able to control. Therefore, if you see the person exhibiting dramatic behavior that you find very frustrating, you need to remind yourself that this is being caused by the illness and not something she deliberately set out to do. Rather than judging her, take this opportunity to encourage the person to seek professional help and/or take medication to get control of the mood swings and impulsiveness.

4. No one will ever be able to put up with you. Many people with bipolar disease have a deep-seeded fear that they won't ever sustain close friendships and relationships because of their mood swings and unpredictable behavior. However, with proper treatment, she should be able to manage her condition and develop a loving relationship and close friends. You can be there to listen to her fears and help to alleviate them by reminding her that she has people in her life that care.

5. You're just going through a bad time and it will pass soon. While bipolar disorder can be effectively managed, scientists have not yet found a cure, although more research is ongoing and this may change in the future. In the meantime, recognize that the person affected will have both good and bad periods of time. Be careful not to downplay the illness or act like it's just a temporary state, since this can leave the affected person feeling like she must have failed if she can't shake it off on her own. Walker recommends acknowledging the reality of the condition and reassuring the person that you will always be there for her when she needs you.

For More Information

To learn more about bipolar disorder and the current treatment options, or to participate in the "Say it Forward" campaign, visit IBPF's website.

Muffy Walker reviewed this article.


International Bipolar Foundation
Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA, email interview 15 Sept 2013 and "Healthy Living With Bipolar Disorder," accessed 17 Sept 2013‎