If you have a friend or relative with bipolar disorder, you know that dealing with their condition is not always easy. Properly supporting them can be hard.
Knowing what not to say is important. Sometimes, we can say things that might trigger their condition or make them feel worse. Words really can hurt people with any kind of mental illness.
So, here are some things to avoid saying.
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Or, similar remarks like: "I feel happy or sad too." and "Everyone has mood swings sometimes." These comments might be intended to show that you can relate to them, but it's actually dismissing what they go through. Yes, we all have good and bad moods. People with bipolar have those moods in much more heightened ways. A key part of the disorder is that emotions are intense and often unpredictable.
People without bipolar don't really understand how those mood swings feel and comparing them to normal mood shifts is not helpful.
Chances are that someone with bipolar already knows their reaction is disproportionate. The problem is that they can't actually stop themselves reacting that way. Saying this is only going to make them more frustrated with their own condition.
Well, yes, that's why it's called "mental illness." This one is heard far too many times by people with all kinds of mental illnesses.
Medication is an important part of treating bipolar, but it doesn't always resolve all of the symptoms. People with bipolar also need therapy to help them identify triggers, manage stress, etc. Medication often has to be adjusted over time.
Just because somebody is taking their meds it doesn't mean they are "cured" or are not going to have symptoms you might notice. Unless the person with bipolar has asked you to remind them to take their meds, don't ask about their meds.
Pretty much everyone with any kind of chronic illness is tired of hearing these pieces of advice. If something in their diet could solve their problems, then they would get help from a nutritionist. Exercise¹ can, in fact, help people with bipolar disorder, and they probably know that and are trying it already if they can.
Your friend is probably already trying lifestyle changes and unless you are a nutritionist or similar, you can't give them better advice than they are already getting.
This seems like basic reassurance. However, if somebody is depressed or anxious, then it puts you in opposition to the little voice in their head saying it's not. This can make them even more convinced that things are not going to be okay. If somebody's already depressed, this can even push them into self-harm. It's also dismissive of their feelings.
It's easy to blame every shift in a person's mood on their bipolar. This can be hurtful and dismissive if the mood shift is actually related to something in their environment. Accusing somebody of being manic when they are genuinely excited about something can be quite painful. Accusing somebody of just having a mood swing when they seem down can be even worse if you then find out that something bad actually happened. Or, perhaps, they are actually mad with you and you're blaming it on a "mood swing" rather than dealing with the underlying issue.
Furthermore, people with bipolar have episodes, which generally last for an extended period of time, unlike mood swings, which are shorter and more sudden shifts in mood.
You're too "normal" or too "smart" to have bipolar. First of all, people with bipolar disorder are ill, not crazy. Crazy implies all kinds of negative things, including the potential of being a danger to other people.
The insidious thing here is that you might think it's a compliment. You might think you are saying they have things well under control, but that's not how it tends to come over. "Too smart" can also result in them feeling that they should have been able to avoid getting sick. "I couldn't tell" isn't a compliment...it's shutting down the conversation when they felt they could be open with you.
This shows a basic misunderstanding of what happens during a manic episode. While people have a lot of energy during a manic episode, they also tend to be distracted, engage in risky behavior, and have difficulty sleeping. In some cases, they can experience hallucinations and delusions.
Many people with bipolar come out of a manic episode finding out they have done something disastrous, such as spending money they don't really have, taking some irrevocable step to start a project that seemed like a good idea, etc. So, this is another thing not to talk about.
You need to be careful what you say to people with any mental illness, including bipolar disorder. If you find yourself starting to say the things above or anything else hurtful, think twice and instead try saying things like: "I'm here for you," "What can I do to help?" or "I'm always willing to listen.". Sit down and talk with your friend about how they want to be helped and supported, and if they tell you that you said something hurtful, listen and don't say it again.
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