How Family Therapy Can Help You Support a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

When you live with someone who struggles with Bipolar Disorder, it’s easy for the whole family to feel drawn into the orbit of their highs and lows. But family therapy can help each family member learn how they can best support them during those difficult times, as well as how they can best support themselves.

 
To truly support a loved one who lives with Bipolar Disorder, you'll need to build a supportive and compassionate home environment.
During my husband’s first manic episodes, none of us knew that it was Bipolar Disorder. He wanted to do everything, all of the time—take the kids for ice cream, go shopping, tackle every errand that we had lined up for the week. His excitement was contagious, and a surge of energy rippled its way through our family. But then the cracks began to show. He became irritable—he hadn’t slept in days—and he was frustrated when we couldn’t keep up with his pace. His depression spread just as fast as the excitement. The mood of the household turned bleak and hopeless in what felt like an instant, and we all found it impossible to break out of his mood.

It’s often said that the people we’re surrounded by are just reflections of ourselves, and nowhere is this more evident than in our emotions. We’ve all woken up at some point in our lives in a great mood, ready to face the day, only to be dragged down by the sullen faces of our co-workers when we get to work. Or maybe it’s the other way around: we got up on the wrong side of the bed, and then found ourselves lifted up by a cheerful colleague. If you live with someone with Bipolar Disorder (BD), you understand how your family’s moods can peak and dip along with theirs. It’s complicated for everyone involved: you know their mood swings are out of their control, but that may not make it any easier for you to know how to manage them. But that’s where family therapy comes in: it asks that you be intentionally present during each stage of your loved one’s recovery—and that means that you can learn how to support each other in real-time, through manic episodes, depressive episodes, and everything in between.

Why Family Support is So Important to Recovery

When your loved one is in a manic or depressive phase, it’s understandable that you’d be affected by it. Don’t shame yourself for feeling drawn into their high and lows—that’s a normal response, and, like their changing moods, it’s often not something you can control. But you can be prepared for those highs and lows, and that’s crucial, because mounting research shows that how family members respond to their loved one’s manic and depressive episodes can affect their recovery timeline. To prevent relapses and minimize the severity of each episode, you’ll need a solid set of skills that you can use to support them—as well as ways that you can support yourself.

Reaching a True Understanding of the Disorder

There are an infinite number of variables that govern a family’s dynamic. That’s why it’s important to go through therapy with a trained professional who understands families and Bipolar Disorder: because each family member has the potential to impact the way your loved one responds to a particular episode. It’s important that everyone be involved in understanding the disorder (even young siblings), so you’ll all attend each session together. The brunt of your work will be divided into three components: learning how to identify the signs and symptoms of relapse, developing strategies for supporting your loved one through manic or depressive episodes, and learning how to help them stay on a healthy medication regimen.

Those are the skills you’ll need to truly understand the disorder—your toolbox, in a sense—but what you’re building with them is an environment in which your loved one feels supported, empowered, and understood. That’s what really makes an impact on recovery: people who come down from an episode in a home where there are “high levels of criticism, hostility, and/or emotional overinvolvement from a caregiving relativeare two to three times more likely to relapse in the subsequent 9 months” than those who don’t. As trouble as the statistic is, it makes a lot of common sense. People do best when they’re loved and valued—regardless of whether or not they live with Bipolar Disorder.

The Role and Involvement of Children in Family Therapy

Even for adults, loving someone who lives with Bipolar Disorder can be a confusing and emotionally draining experience. Now imagine being a child trying to understand why their mother, father, or sibling goes from such high highs to such low lows, unable to comprehend why it’s happening and unaware of the way that the illness is affecting them. They very likely know that something is wrong, but they may not know how to express that feeling, or how the illness affects them directly. Family therapy can help them work through both of those things in a setting in which their parents are likely doing the same. This is especially important for an illness like Bipolar Disorder, given how much of an impact the emotional responses of family members have on the recovery process. Involving children in family therapy is a great way to help them understand how they can play a role in their loved one’s recovery, and can be an excellent resource for teaching them coping strategies that they can use to support themselves.

Creating a Support Network for Treatment

Learning the most adaptive ways to support a loved one who lives with Bipolar Disorder is the best way to keep them healthy and safe. Though some families seek this kind of family therapy through outpatient programs, it may be that residential treatment makes more sense for your loved one. There, they can work with a treatment team to create an individualized treatment plan for themselves, and that plan can include comprehensive family therapy that helps each family member develop their own understanding of how they can best support their loved one in recovery. It’s a long road, but trust us when we say that it feels shorter when you’re surrounded by those you love.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential mental health treatment for people who live with Bipolar Disorder as well as other co-occurring mental health challenges. Reach out to us to learn more about how family therapy in residential treatment can help you and your loved one work towards recoverytogether.

 

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