What you say to your loved one with bipolar disorder can make a difference — either in a positive way or in a harmful one.
If your loved one has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you may be in shock and may not know what to say. It’s important to choose your words carefully, because what you communicate can either support your loved one and encourage him to seek treatment or make him feel even worse about himself and his diagnosis, discouraging him from getting the help he needs.
Bipolar Disorder: The Nine Worst Things to Say
You may have been surprised by your loved one’s diagnosis and his behavior may be very frustrating, but no matter what he does (or doesn’t do) and how upset you get, do your best to avoid saying the following:
- You’re crazy.
- This is your fault.
- You’re not trying.
- Everyone has bad times.
- You’ll be okay — there’s no need to worry.
- You’ll never be in a serious romantic relationship.
- What’s the matter with you?
- I can’t help you.
- You don’t have to take your moods out on me — I’m getting so tired of this.
The truth is that bipolar disorder is a genetic medical illness — and it is treatable. Your loved one may cycle between being depressed with very little energy to being hyperactive or “manic.” This is all part of the illness and he can’t help it. It’s important that you be supportive, without nagging him. It will also help you if you know what to expect and how to spot when your loved one is not doing well or has stopped taking his medication.
Not finding someone to love romantically is something your loved one may be concerned about, so be careful not to reinforce that idea, even in frustration, especially since it’s not true. “There are plenty of people with these illnesses that get married. It just means that they have to do their best to get the condition under control,” says Jeffrey Rakofsky, MD, a psychiatrist at the Emory University Bipolar Disorders Clinic in Atlanta.
Bipolar Disorder: The Eight Best Things to Say
What should you say to be supportive and help your loved one to do his best to manage the condition without being too pushy? Some of the best words of encouragement include:
- This is a medical illness and it is not your fault.
- I am here. We’ll make it through this together.
- You and your life are important to me.
- You’re not alone.
- Tell me how I can help.
- I might not know how you feel, but I’m here to support you.
- Whenever you feel like giving up, tell yourself to hold on for another minute, hour, day — whatever you feel you can do.
- Your illness doesn’t define who you are. You are still you, with hopes and dreams you can attain.
Kristin Finn, author of Bipolar and Pregnant, a mental health advocate and member of the speaker’s bureau of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 30 years ago and is the mother of a 17-year-old daughter with bipolar disorder. Finn stresses that as important as it is to know what to say, it is also important to know when not to say anything. Finn says when her daughter’s mood changes suddenly, the best thing she can do is give her daughter space and not ask “What’s wrong?” or “Is it something I did?” She adds, “Remember it’s not about you. You’ve got to let the person experience what they are experiencing.”
Finn also recommends suggesting a support group to your loved one or finding books about the condition that may help him realize that he is not alone and that lots of people live with bipolar disorder every day.
Dr. Rakofsky adds another important point to remind your loved one of: “People with bipolar disorder are often very creative [and] talented. We have people like Vincent Van Gogh and other artists and actors out there that speak to that.”