protect your people – tips for carers

*I want to preface this article by saying that I’ve never called myself a carer before this year. It wasn’t until I attended my first ever Bipolar UK conference that I realised that’s what I have been for a lot of my life. I have two very special people in my life who have bipolar, a close family member (who has asked to remain unnamed – let’s call them my ‘Bipolar Bear’ for the sake of this article) and my business partner, April Kelley, who I’m sure you’re all au fait with now as she’s an ambassador for Bipolar UK. 

It wasn’t until I was 16 years old I first witnessed my Bipolar Bear have a manic episode, and boy did it take me by surprise! Not only did the hypomania cause them to purchase a scooter, but they took another family member on a 4hr car journey to London where they stopped in a field on the way to ‘see the Northern lights’ and were eventually met by the police and sectioned. From that moment on bipolar was very much a part of my life, and now I see it as an old friend. 

The title of bipolar took a few manic episodes and years to arrive on our doorstep, and when it did it took some time for Bear to process the ‘label’. We felt a strange mix between grief and relief as a family, because now we had something tangible we could actually try and educate ourselves on. It’s been a long old journey of discovery (I could honestly write a whole book about it) but I wanted to write down some things I’ve learnt along the way, that hopefully will help some of you out there. And remember whether you are a close friend, relative or neighbour for someone with bipolar, you are still a carer in some way, and what you do to support that person really matters.

  1. Firstly, read up on your facts. I did, and still do, lots of reading on bipolar. I believe it’s super important for a loved one to be clued up on the illness. Make sure you read trustworthy websites like the NHS or Bipolar UK. If you are more informed you can be better prepared if someone is having a wobble, or an episode and it can make you less fearful or nervous of their behaviour.
  2. Be patient with their emotional swings. It is a turbulent time, especially when you first get a diagnosis or your loved one is having an episode. Anger, sadness, anxiety and depression are all really common, so keeping calm and always offering a smile or a hug is a great way to reassure.
  3. Don’t try and find answers or fix them. The world of mental health is a minefield. You may find they want to talk about their diagnosis or go back and forth on why they have it. Or scrutinise the diagnosis. Bipolar symptoms can vary so much and we still have a lot of ‘unknowns’. The best thing you can do is say you’re both on that journey of discovery and it’s about finding coping mechanisms together to help you support them best.
  4. Make sure you regularly check in. They may not be struggling on the outside and seem OK, but a check-in goes a long way. Look for repetition of behaviour and learn their triggers, so you can start to measure when they’re not so good. Also, keep tight and trusted networks, and check in with others close to them, so you can keep an eye on their sleep patterns. Sleep patterns can be the giveaway to revealing an episode or hypomania is on the horizon. (I always use the example of Bear seeming hyper and holding it together in the day, only to discover they were face-timing friends in the US all night and had barely slept for a week!)
  5. Agree a game plan for damage control. Talk to them at a time when they are feeling really well and write down together (we signed a letter together as a family) a game plan for when they are ill or have a manic episode. Important things to cover are:
  • If they want their phone taken off them
  • If they want their spending restricted (we capped a spend at £300 before they allowed us to take their bank cards off them and keep their money safe).
  • How they feel about hospital and if they’d rather be sectioned in their own house with family/friends. Importantly: do they see hospital as a last resort, or would they prefer to be there amongst specialists.
  • How you agree to look after them at home, when you take them out and how you help them assess when they are ready to go back into work.
  • Which friends they don’t mind you telling that they’re ill, and which work colleagues or wider friends they don’t want you sharing this information with..
  • When you stop them drinking, and when you get tougher and remove them from social situations.
  • Make them write down and sign if they are giving you permission to ask hospitals about their medication. Hospitals can be very strict on this, so ideally a formal power of attorney drawn up in advance really helps align your access to their medical updates if they are unfortunately sectioned.

If you can agree their wishes in advance, it helps so much, because you can action what you’ve agreed without feeling really guilty (because believe me, a manic episode can make that loved one not want to do anything you’ve agreed!).

  1. Offer them structure. If your loved one is struggling, support them with structure. This could be a time you eat together, get out of bed, walk or exercise together, take their medication, have a call to check in, or wind down for bed. Structure is the key to stability and helps recovery.
  2. Help manage their medication diary (I learnt the hard way with this one…). Same time, correct dose, every day. WRITE IT DOWN. Get a pill box. Set an alarm on their phone. Whatever it is to help you organise with them. This is key to creating a positive environment around taking medication, it becomes a habit rather than you being the bad guy making them take it.
  3. Take some things with a pinch of salt. Sometimes your loved one can say and do things they don’t mean when they are ill. Trust me, you have to let it go. They are ill and they probably won’t even remember it when they’re better. This really helps me process some of the extremities this illness can bring out.
  4. Finally make sure you have support. Being a carer can be hard work. You can be very emotionally engaged with your loved one and sometimes they can do or say things that are really distressing, that can affect you too. They also may need more emotional support as it can be really tough in moments. YOU CAN ONLY SUPPORT THEM WELL IF YOU ARE LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF. That means find a friend or family member to lean on and look after you. I describe it as the 'different circles of support'.

Protect your people, and stay safe. 

Sara x