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Caring for Someone with Bipolar Disorder

By Julie Totten

(Page 1 of 3)

Soon after Missy had her daughter, she stopped sleeping, going from eight hours a night down to only two or three. Her thoughts were racing, and she was going a million miles an hour. After a few nights, Missy’s husband Bill finally took her to the hospital. He couldn’t believe that one minute his wonderful wife seemed just fine and now she had become a patient in a psych unit.

From the time Ally was nine months old, her parents Bill and Nancy knew that something was wrong. Ally couldn't sleep, had temper tantrums up to 20 times a day, and increasingly became more aggressive. Medical professionals told Bill and Nancy not to worry, that she’ll grown out of it, but they continued to seek help from doctor after doctor.

Nell’s sister, Maud, stopped taking her medication for bipolar disorder and fell into a depressive episode. Nell threw all her energies into visiting her sister at the hospital, comforting and supporting her while the doctors tried drug after drug before finding the right ones; explaining to Maud’s boss why she would be out of the office for weeks or more; and wondering how to cope with the new financial and emotional burdens in her life.

Missy, Ally, and Maud all have bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression), in which moods gyrate between the highs of mania and the lows of depression. They have been hospitalized, have struggled to come to terms with their diagnosis, and have suffered deeply.  All three have family caregivers -- a spouse, parents, a sibling – who are dedicated to helping them recover, but who feel uninformed, isolated, overwhelmed, sad, and at times, angry and hopeless.

Caring for someone with any illness is difficult. Caring for someone with a psychiatric illness is especially hard for many reasons.  Health care coverage is far more limited than for other illnesses. Just getting someone who is in a state of mania -- even when psychotic -- hospitalized and accurately diagnosed is a major accomplishment. Bipolar sufferers, particularly when they are in an up (manic) rather than down (depressed) phase, often refuse to see a clinician and stop taking their medication. The medications are powerful and have unpleasant side effects.  There is no cure for bipolar disorder and so the drugs must be taken for life, a daunting prospect, especially for younger sufferers.  Finding the right meds may take as long as several years, and over time they may stop working.   For family caregivers, coping with someone who is manic or depressed takes a heavy emotional toll and strains the relationship, often to the breaking point. An added burden is the stigma of mental illness, which leaves families feeling frightened and isolated, unaware that many other families share their experience.

Given all these challenges, caring for someone with bipolar disorder can be overwhelming and at times an impossible responsibility to maintain. But there are ways to cope effectively. Families for Depression Awareness, the nonprofit organization I founded (after losing my brother and helping my father get diagnosed with depression), has interviewed many families that are doing well. True, it took a while to learn how best to help and support their bipolar family member, and time, too, to learn that caregivers also have needs that must be met.  Sometimes the stresses and strains were intense, and these families have had their ups and downs. But by educating themselves about bipolar disorder, improving treatment by finding the best possible medication and therapy solutions possible, and communicating as a tightly knit unit, these families have met the challenges, survived intact, and are emotionally healthy.


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