Recently a friend asked me what to do about someone that he suspects has bipolar. It was not someone I knew and as he was back in his home country, I could only give some pointers over Facebook message.
Firstly, I asked him to read up about the condition, especially how to recognise possible symptoms. That’s the easy part. The difficult part comes when deciding if, when and how to approach the topic. Often people can be in denial, or because of stigma, they can react strongly against suggestions that they have a mental health issue.
Here are some tips that I thought up for my friend and I hope it can help others with similar concerns about someone they know:
1. Assess How Close You are to this Person
We are more likely to open up to people who we feel know us well. Generally speaking, if you have noticed problematic mood swings that affect how a person functions, there is a good chance that you are close enough to that person. If you don’t feel close enough to someone, try to sound out a mutual friend who may be closer, and ask him/her whether they have the same suspicions. Choose someone mature and trustworthy, who will not take the opportunity to gossip. There is a difference between speaking up in order to help a friend and being a blabbermouth.
2. Decide on a Good Time to Talk
This can be tricky. An individual could be potentially more responsive after going through a severe emotional outburst because something has happened that suggests there is a problem. However, it cannot be too soon as the friend could still be too emotional and reactive. My friend noticed that his female friend tended to show stronger symptoms at certain times of the month, so obviously he should not attempt the conversation during those times.
3. Raise the Issue as Gently as Possible
Let your friend know why you are concerned and ask if he/she feels there is a problem. Go slow, i.e. it is probably not helpful to suggest right away that they should see a doctor or get medication. The aim is to just provide some insight as a starting point. If your friend agrees that something is wrong, (it may take a long time to get to this stage – please be patient!) then discuss some options for what he/she can do e.g. see a counsellor.
If your friend denies that there is something wrong, don’t push the issue. Continue to engage him/her while setting some boundaries of your own so that you are not overly affected by the person’s moods. Don’t stop being friends just because he/she does not agree with what you have said. You have planted a seed. If there is a genuine problem, your friend will realise it in time, and that is when he/she will need support and will appreciate the fact that you have stuck with them.
4. Build a Supportive Community
Try to find out if there are good places your friend can find help from (e.g. counsellors with a good track record). Again, you may need to ask around people you trust who would know such information. It is really important to help your friend alongside others, to be in a community. It is very exhausting and not advisable to do it alone.
I have not heard back from my friend since then, but I do hope things turn out well. Thinking back on this incident, I am really glad that people know I have bipolar and can approach me for advice. It is also great to know that people care enough to be pro-active instead of just writing off a person because they exhibit challenging behaviour. Here’s to more people like my friend!
Read the rest of Jen’s posts here.