Bipolar Disorder: Effects on the family

June 23, 2023 – 10:54 am
Portrait of Antero de Quental(1943) - José de Almada Negreiros (1893 - 1970

Bipolar disorder, a brain disorder characterized by extreme swings in moods, is a puzzling illness that not only affects the individual but their family and friends as well.

Living with a person who has bipolar disorder involves learning how to deal with the disruptions that symptoms can create, supporting the person through their recovery, and finding ways to cope with the effects on the family. Bipolar disorder can place a heavy strain on families. Depending on the nature of an individual’s illness and how well the illness is managed, the family can be affected in a variety of ways. When mood swings are mild, the family may experience some forms of distress but, over time and with education about mental illness, they can learn live with the demands of the illness.

Caring for someone with bipolar disorder can place heavy burdens on the family, particularly if they are not equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with mental illness. It can be exhausting, especially for families with young children.

When bipolar disorder is not properly controlled with medical treatment, the family may experience:

Emotional distress such as guilt, grief, and worry

Disruption in regular routines

Having to deal with bizarre or reckless behaviour

Financial stresses as a result of reduced income or spending sprees

Strained marital or family relationships

Changes in family roles

Difficulty in maintaining relationships outside the family

Health problems as a result of stress

Family members experience various emotions as they learn to come to terms with having someone who has bipolar disorder. There is no right or wrong ways to feel. What is important is how you handle these emotions.

At first, families may feel guilt, thinking that they somehow caused the person to become ill. Young children are particularly vulnerable to thinking they somehow caused their parent to become ill. Every member of the family needs to understand that no one can cause a person to develop bipolar disorder; it is a medical illness.

As with all serious illness, families will likely feel sorrow and grief. This is a natural reaction. We care about our family members and want them to be healthy and happy. Families sometimes feel they have lost the person they knew. However, mental illness such as bipolar disorder does not mean that the personcannot live a successful, happy life. What it means is that the individual and their family now have a new challenge they must face in life. With proper treatment and illness management, there is hope.

Families also worry about their loved one, as a manic episode can cause a person to behave in a reckless manner or make unwise decisions. One way to help alleviate this worry is to develop a plan to as to how the family will manage difficult times. When your family member is well, sit down and talk about how things will be handled in the event they become unwell. Developing a crisis plan can help to ensure that everyone knows what to expect should the person become unwell again.

When my wife is in a manic state, I worry constantly about what might happen.

Children may fear that they will inherit the illness. Older children may fear that they may have to manage the care of their ill sibling as well as manage their own lives when their parents can no longer do the job. In any event, families need to learn to manage anxiety and to lead as fulfilling lives as possible.

Disruption in routines may arise as a result of either manic or depressive episodes. Normal activities and chores may have to be set aside and left to be attended to on a later date when the episode subsides. Re-establishing a routine as soon as possible is important for staying well and reducing stress on all family members.

Family roles can also be affected by bipolar disorder. Children may be forced to take on an adult role when their parent becomes ill; spouses may feel they can no longer rely on their partner to fulfill their share of household and family responsibilities.

I can cope as long as I know she's getting better. I can't give up hope.

Financial difficulties, home and family neglect, constant tension and fear of symptoms returning can strain marital and family relationships. Symptoms such as irritability and poor judgement can lead to increased arguments and confrontations.

Families may find their social network starts shrinking in size. Friends and extended family may feel awkward about what to say or how to help the family. While not everyone in the family social network will be supportive, it is important to seek out those who are, as they are a valuable source of support. Going to a support group is another way to help reduce the sense of isolation a family often faces. Families report that having people to talk to helps them to better cope with the illness.

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