Family members respond differently to bipolar in the family. For some there may be a sense of relief that the extreme mood and behavior has a name and can be treated. Others may find it difficult to accept the diagnosis and attribute the person's behavior to their personality, stress or some outside factor. Commonly, there are times of sadness, anger and grief both for the changes that occur in the person and their relationship. There is also the worry; what effect will the bipolar disorder have on their loved one's future and how will the family cope with a bipolar family member?
It is vital to keep in mind that there are a number of bipolar medical treatments and helpful strategies to deal with bipolar and many people live well despite the illness. However, bipolar disorder can affect people differently. Some people have very frequent episodes. At the other extreme, others seldom become unwell. Many people with bipolar suffer from aging mild symptoms. Even mild depressive symptoms can affect their daily functioning. People with bipolar need to be aware of their vulnerability to overstimulation and sleep disruption as these can trigger mania or hypomania. In addition to taking bipolar medication, altering and regulating their lifestyles helps many people keep well. Appropriate support from loved ones can also make things a lot easier.
If you have a bipolar spouse who seldom has a bipolar episode and is mostly symptom free, your relationship may not change much, except when they become ill. Bipolar in the family can mean that you need to take on extra responsibilities at home or financially. Neverheless, you may enjoy being with the interesting and creative person you married and respect their courage in dealing with bipolar. However, if they are frequently unwell, there may be little time to relax or enjoy usual leisure activities. You may feel very grown up and alone as you try to hold your bipolar family together. Every relationship has its ups and downs and bipolar can make conflict worse. You may wish you could regain some of the more equal and rewarding relationship or family life you once had.
Coping with bipolar family member can be challenging for other types of family members too. It can be very disturbing for a parent when their child is ill. Having an adult child with bipolar can make it hard to know when to step in, especially if they are struggling to manage their illness and experiencing some of the more severe bipolar effects (eg financial consequences or relationship breakdown). Some adult children with a bipolar parent may feel that they have always had a parental role. Siblings may feel left out, as if the focus is always on their bipolar sister or bipolar brother. They may worry that they will get bipolar too.
Research has shown that bipolar carers or caregivers are at increased risk of developing depression and other health problems. Bipolar family members may neglect their own health (eg not exercise, eat unhealthy food, miss necessary medical appointments, even neglect their own hygiene) as they devote them to caring for their unwell relative. Do not ignore signs that you are becoming stressed or depressed. There are helpful ways to cope when a loved one has bipolar.
If you are coping with a bipolar family member, for information and bipolar family support see: