How to Talk to Someone Experiencing a Bipolar Mood Episode

Trigger Warning: This post contains a brief discussion of suicidal ideation.

Bipolar patients suffering from mood episodes often make no sense. If they are depressed, they may say things like, “I’m a failure. No one loves me. I want to die.” On the flip side, if they’re manic or hypomanic, they might say things like, “I can fly! Let’s deep clean the house at midnight! It’s all so clear now!”

Telling the depressed person that he or she is not a failure and that people love him or her may fall on deaf ears. Similarly, trying to engage with the manic person’s delusions might be futile. So how do you talk to someone suffering from these issues?

Let’s dig in.

How to Talk to a Depressed Person

In order to talk to a depressed person, you need to address the root problem: the illness. You need to offer sympathy, understanding, and possible solutions.

For example, one thing you can say in response to his or her negativity is this: “I hear you. I understand that you’re depressed. This is normal for your bipolar disorder. I know it sucks. I’ve seen you like this before. Maybe you could take a long, hot shower; we know that helps you feel better.” This response addresses the real issue and communicates that you are there for the depressed person.

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A woman with very red lips on a cell phone. Credit to flickr.com user Anders Adermark. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Depressed people may also suffer suicidal thoughts, which are dangerous. If they express these thoughts, you can say something like, “Thank you for telling me. You mean a lot to me, and I am here for you.” Then suggest that the depressed person call his or her treatment team and let them know that he or she is suffering from these thoughts.

How to Talk to a Manic Person

Similar to talking to someone suffering from depression, when talking to a manic person, you need to respond with patience and understanding. He or she will try to talk over you, and will not be able to stop talking. Be careful about being swept up into the conversation, as it can be overstimulating for everyone.

If the manic person ends up overstimulated, his or her mania or hypomania might worsen and he or she may become agitated. Despite their confidence, people with hypomania or mania are very sensitive in their elevated mood, and may take offense easily. If you are overstimulated, you might not be as effective at helping them remain calm. Make sure that the manic person is in a safe place and walk away for a break.

When you return, answer questions briefly, calmly, and honestly. If the manic person proposes a project or goal, do not agree to participate. You can keep tabs on them during the project and remind them to eat, sleep, and generally take breaks.

In my own experience, I was manic shortly after giving birth. I clapped my hands repeatedly and demanded that we–myself and the woman from church visiting me–clean the house, rather than let me recover. I was focused on getting my projects done, and ended up devastated once my goal was thwarted. Prepare to deal with that devastation–or frustration.

If the manic person tries to argue, remain detached. Talk about neutral topics. If you need to postpone the discussion, say something like, “I see this means a lot to you. We definitely need to discuss this, but let’s do so in the morning after I am no longer upset and tired.” You can also try to redirect his or her behavior, saying something like, “Would you prefer to take a walk or watch a movie?”

Final Thoughts

Communicating with people suffering from a mood episode, be it mania or depression, can be difficult. They often believe things that aren’t true. So taking care of yourself in the situation is paramount. If the manic or depressive person is critical of you, tell the person that you understand that he or she is ill and upset, but that you will not tolerate being spoken to in that way. Then find a way to exit the conversation and reconvene later. Be firm, but kind.

Above all, as with so many strategies for dealing with bipolar people, be patient. They are suffering from a mental illness that they cannot control. It’s not their fault. If they must deal with the consequences of their actions, try to present those consequences after they come out of the mood episode, when they are back to their rational selves.

Good luck!

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How to Talk To Your Kids About Mental Illness

“Mom, are you crazy?” my eight-year-old son, Ryan, asked after reading over my shoulder while I worked on my book. My memoir, Committed, is about my stay in a mental hospital one week after Nolan’s birth, and the page he read demonstrated a particularly erratic behavior from me.

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Credit to flickr.com user Evan Long. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

“No, honey,” I said. My heart sank. I was not ready to have this conversation yet, but Ryan’s question made me think otherwise. “I do have bipolar disorder, which is a mental illness.”

“What’s bipolar disorder?” he said.

“Bipolar disorder is when I sometimes feel depressed–like nothing in the world matters anymore,” I said, patting him on the arm. “But it also means I feel super energetic sometimes, and can’t control myself very well.”

“Will I get it?” he said, his eyes widening.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You might. It comes when you’re a teenager or young adult. But there are medications available to help manage it, so don’t worry.”

“Oh,” he said, giving me a hug. “I’m sorry you have bipolar disorder, Mama.”

And that was that.  The dreaded conversation–the start of many–was over.

Arming your kids with age-appropriate information about your mental illness can help them feel secure. If you talk to them about your disorder, they will know what to expect when you have a down–or up–day. They’ll also learn to separate you from your illness, and from any negative feelings that might occur. If you don’t talk to then, they’ll invariably draw their own conclusions, which can make them feel unsure about you and their position in the world.

Here are some tips for talking about mental illness with your kids.

1. Keep it Simple

Children only need to know the basics of mental illness: it’s not contagious, they are not destined to have a disorder, there are treatments available, etc. Another important factor that goes into talking about mental disorders with your kids is stressing that it’s not their fault. They can’t make their parent better, nor should they try. They can only support their mother 0r father by checking in on them, watching movies with them, and generally being their awesome selves.

2. Reassure Them

Explain to your children if they ask that they might get your disorder, but reassure them that there are treatments available and that you’re getting help yourself, if you are. Tell your kids that you still love them, and no amount of mental illness will change that.

3. Know Your Child’s Maturity Level

All kids are different, and mature at different rates. Preschoolers will only want very basic information about why you’re sad. Preteens will want more information, so give them as much as you think they can handle. Teenagers will often turn to their friends when seeking information about things that bother them, so make sure they’re well-informed.

4. Address Their Fears

Ask your children if they have any worries now that you’ve brought up the topic. Reassure them that their needs will be met and that you’re not going anywhere. Repeat information if they appear confused. It may be helpful to bring their fears up with a mental health professional, so you can make a plan to address them.

5. Make Yourself Available

Make sure you don’t end the conversation there. Children will have questions as they grow, and it’s important that you be available to answer them. Explain to your kids that they are always welcome to ask questions of you about this topic.

Talking with your kids about mental illness can be tough. But if you’re open to it, they’ll appreciate your candor and feel more secure knowing what’s going on with their parent.

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