Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that can be incredibly debilitating – both for the patient and those around them. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), bipolar disorder is the sixth highest cause of disability in the world.
Previously referred to as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disease is characterised by fluctuating highs (mania) and lows (depression), with periods of normal moods in between. The resulting emotional rollercoaster is exhausting for everyone concerned.
The good news is that bipolar disorder can be treated successfully and there is a lot that you, as a partner, can do to help your loved one cope. Here are a few tips from those in the know:
1. Educate yourself
“Bipolar disorder is a real illness. Learn about the illness. The more you know, the more you can help your loved one,” says SADAG’s Meryl da Costa. “I’d really recommend visiting the SADAG website at www.sadag.org. There are articles, brochures, online videos, questionnaires and other useful information that can help you.”
2. Acknowledge your partner’s feelings
Don’t try to force your partner to cheer up. “Bipolar and depressed people have real feelings. They can’t just ‘snap out of it’ and feel better. They are not weak or lazy. They also want to feel well again,” says Da Costa. “Rather listen to them and continue to reassure them that you love them.”
3. Set boundaries
Manic and depressive episodes are sometimes synonymous with irritation, aggression, manipulation, threats and even abuse. “Despite your partner having uncontrolled emotions and reactions, any sort of abuse is not acceptable. Put certain boundaries into your relationship as soon as you can, and do not accept abuse of any sort. There is no excuse for abuse, not even mental illness,” says Nina Mensing, author of A Manic Marriage, which describes her journey with a bipolar husband.
4. Join a support group
There are over 20 support groups in South Africa for people suffering from bipolar disorder. There are also a number of support groups for the loved ones of those with bipolar. Call SADAG on 0800 21 22 23 to find your closest support group. “Sharing fears, worries and feelings with other people who are in the same situation helps hugely,” says Da Costa.
5. Enforce medication
“Many patients decide to take themselves off their medication during a manic (high) episode. They do this because they think that they are doing fine. They're 'happy', they're 'coping', they're 'managing'… But meanwhile, they're going through a manic phase. Stopping medication can lead to a relapse and may worsen the manic and depressive episodes. So it's important to never let your partner take themselves off of their medication,” says Da Costa.
6. Be a team
It’s vital for you to manage your partner’s treatment as a team. “This means going to appointments together and knowing exactly what type of treatment the person is receiving. The minute the person becomes secretive about their illness or treatment, it means that there's something to be secretive about. It helps tremendously if you know the various role players, like your partner’s psychiatrist, psychologist, doctor and pharmacist, so that you can contact them if necessary,” says Mensing.
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