Supporting a Friend in a Bipolar Depressive Episode

By: Allan G. Cooper

When I am experiencing a Depressive Episode it feels like I am walking in a dark haze of sadness and fatigue. My limbs feel like they are twice as heavy and it takes a tremendous amount of will power to complete the simplest of tasks.

Social situations are a challenge because my anxiety is high and my concentration is poor. Normally, I enjoy talking and visiting with my friends but when I am in a Depressive Episode I hardly say a word. I end up sitting quietly trying to will my brain to jump on the merry-go-round of social interaction. This is one reason I avoid being with my friends when I am not well.

During Depressive Episodes, because my concentration is poor and my ability to experience pleasure is reduced, talking in a fun and spontaneous way is a challenge. Plus, common questions in conversation like “what did you do today?” can be difficult to answer for someone in a Depressive Episode. An honest response might be, “I laid in bed all day struggling with suicidal ideation”, but you can’t say that so it can be hard to talk about your day.

There is isn’t one exact formula for the best way to support someone during a Bipolar Depressive Episode. What works for one person may not be effective for someone else. I can only share what I find most helpful.

In my case, advice is not helpful. I know that when I am in a Depressive Episode I will be suffering for some time and I accept that. This means I don’t beat myself up for not being able to accomplish as much when I am not well. When people give me advice it makes me entertain the thought that maybe I am not trying hard enough. I struggle with self compassion when my mood is low so battling thoughts like this is just a waste of precious energy that I need to get through the day.

I may not be a lot of fun to be around when I am in a Depressive Episode but I still want to be around people. Attending a Peer Support group is a really great way to fulfill this need. Everyone understands how I feel and I don’t have to pretend I am ok. It can be helpful for people with Bipolar Disorder to have a friend go to their first meeting with them to help ease the anxiety of meeting new people. 

When a friend invites me to join them on one of their activities it helps me to be more active in my life. For example, if someone says something like, “I am going to go for a walk. Why don’t you join me?” I find it very supportive. If I simply don’t have enough energy to go, I don’t feel bad because I know the activity does not require my presence. In this case, it’s important that my friend goes for a walk even if I decide not to go.

When I am experiencing a Depressive Episode, I feel extremely exhausted and when I make plans to meet friends it may take me forever just to leave my apartment. I have friends who understand this about me. They may go to a coffee shop and read until I can make it there to meet them. I don’t use my mood as an excuse to be disrespectful to people who insist on punctuality, but I will likely choose to spend time with people who are a little more flexible when I am not well.

Even though I am not good at communicating with others when my mood is low it is still nice to hear from people who care about me. A quick text or phone call from someone who is genuinely concerned means a lot to me. I may be too tired to talk but it’s nice to have human connection and it’s a small gesture that makes me feel better.

If someone asks me what they can do to help I will likely have no response. Again, the concentration required to assess my needs, figure out what would be an acceptable request and formulate a sentence communicating all of this is too great. It’s better for me if people offer help by specifically saying what they are willing to do. For example, since fatigue is such a problem, if someone offers to bring me supper when I am not well that’s helpful.

As long as you treat the person with Bipolar Disorder with care, patience and compassion any form of support is appreciated. Bipolar Disorder is chronic. The vast majority of us still battle depressive episodes to varying degrees even after an effective medication is found that reduces the severity of our symptoms. Positive support from friends and family can make the suffering more bearable and potentially speed up recovery.

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