Explaining Your Bipolar Disorder to Your Family and Friends

Once known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is the term used to describe a collection of symptoms unique to this type of mental health issue. 

Characterized by marked shifts in mood, this disorder can significantly disrupt your ability to function. However, because your friends and family may not understand your mental disorder, they can develop faulty perceptions. 

bipolar disorder

The most effective way to help your loved ones understand your bipolar disorder is to communicate openly with them and provide the right information to help them understand. 

Open the Lines of Communication About Bipolar Disorder 

This subject can be difficult for bipolar sufferers to broach with loved ones. You may be sensitive about the subject, or you may be hesitant to discuss your mental health. It’s not necessary to go into detail, however. Simply start by providing a brief description of the disorder. To help avoid confusion, you may want to limit your discussion of symptoms and treatment to only those that apply to you. 

Your loved ones are bound to have questions for you. Answer them honestly, but if someone poses a question that exceeds your boundaries, calmly and lovingly explain that you aren’t comfortable talking about that subject. 

You may find that providing a brief overview, followed up with printed information, is a great way to start a dialogue. If your family or friends aren’t aware of your bipolar disorder, they may be caught off guard. If so, you may need to give them some time to process the information and determine what, if any, questions they have. 

Provide Scientifically Based Information 

If your friends or family have no real-world experience with mental disorders, they may develop perceptions based on movie or TV characters. Or they may receive inaccurate information from other well-meaning friends. The best way to mitigate this is to provide your loved ones with reliable, scientifically based information. 

Ask your doctor or counselor to recommend educational materials that would be helpful for explaining the nature, symptoms and treatment of bipolar disorder. If you prefer to do your own research, be sure your sources are reliable and the information is research-based. 

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) provides an excellent information guide for families of bipolar sufferers, including hints on how to explain it to children and older family members. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides basic information as well as recent scientific developments in the research of bipolar disorder on their website. NIMH also offers free publications that you can request. 

Help Set Expectations Regarding Your Bipolar Disorder 

Once you have explained the nature of your mental disorder and provided additional information, your friends or family members will benefit from an ongoing dialogue. They will naturally be concerned about your well-being, and curious about how you’re doing. You will learn more about bipolar disorder yourself, as you work through the process, so share as much of that new knowledge as you are inclined. 

Sadly, it is possible that you will be met with the occasional closed-minded or unkind response. If that happens, don’t subject yourself to cruelty. Reach out to someone in your support system that you trust to talk about the experience. 

The most effective way to overcome the misinformation and negative perceptions about mental illness is education and conversation. Don’t be afraid to share your story and ask friends and family for support as you work through your challenges.