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A selfcare guide for caregivers of bipolar patients

Taking care of a loved one with the disorder? Read up on all you can about the condition and ensure you have clear boundaries to avoid burnout

It is important for caregivers to have a game plan that can help them tackle manic episodes of the bipolar patient.(Unsplash/Ben White)

By Shweta Dravid

LAST PUBLISHED 21.04.2024  |  08:50 AM IST

In a recent interview, Pakistani actor Mahira Khan opened up about her struggle with bipolar disorder, which was triggered about 6-7 years ago. Many celebrities from Hollywood, including singer Mariah Carey and actors Mel Gibson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, have suffered from bipolar disorder too. In fact, to spread more awareness about this often confused and misunderstood mental health condition, famous artist Vincent Van Gogh's birthday is celebrated as World Bipolar Day. 

Also read: Understanding body dysmorphia, a condition that impacts even celebrities

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However, not much is spoken about the caregivers of bipolar patients. Caregivers are often at a loss while dealing with bipolar patients, which frequently leads to caregiver burnout. If not handled well, it can lead to disastrous results. Lounge spoke to Dr. Rashi Agarwal, a psychiatrist and mental health expert from Medico Home, Meerut, about what caregivers should keep in mind while taking care of their loved ones all while not letting the stress of their responsibilities get to them.  

Dos and Don'ts
A caregiver plays a pivotal role in the health of their loved ones. Thus, it is essential to know what this disorder entails. This will help you prepare better for what lies ahead. 

1. Educate yourself about the illness 
The first step is to get educated about the illness,  says Agarwal. “Try to find out as much as you can about the bipolar disorder condition, either through the internet or discussing it with your doctor and observing the symptoms and changes, if any," says Agarwal. Ask the doctor about the condition, its symptoms, the lows and highs, and what immediate action you should take in case of any extreme situation. Secondly, there is a vast store of online resources and books on bipolar disorder. Read up on it as much as you can. 

2. Formulate a plan for episodes
Bipolar disorder can be categorised into three types:  

a. Manic episodes, where the patient is high on energy and euphoria. They talk fast and suffer from insomnia in this phase.

b. Depressive episodes, where the patient is low on energy and the mood plummets. There is a lack of interest in everything. 

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c. Mixed episodes, where the patient experiences both mania and depression at the same time. 

It is pertinent to have a game plan to tackle these episodes. For instance, what would you do if the person had suicidal thoughts during a low phase, or what help would you provide during a manic episode? Also, it would help if you had a plan to deal with the in-between times. These include taking time out for everyday activities like leisure walking, cooking, listening to music or playing a board game together. Maintaining routines such as regular mealtimes and bedtime can also be helpful. 

“Family members are the primary caregivers of persons with mental illnesses in most of the non-western world. In India, more than 90% of patients with chronic mental illness live with their families. Usually, during the depressive phases, the families are more understanding and helpful and try to motivate the person. It's the manic phase that gets the families over the edge. The patient's anger, suicidal acts and violence can lead caregivers to take it personally," Agarwal says. It is crucial not to let these low phases get to you, as no action of yours is causing your loved one to behave irrationally. Take it as a phase that will ease out over time. Be prepared for these episodes and act practically. 

3. Offer support, but don't push
As a caregiver of a bipolar patient, it is critical that you offer them love, affection and care while not pushing the patient into doing something they do not want to. Sometimes, being a good listener is the best thing you can do for them, especially when they speak about their challenges. Being understanding can help the person feel loved and wanted. Remember, people with this order can make conscious decisions, it is just that they cannot handle their moods. It is best to seek professional help if the symptoms are serious and out of control. 

4. Create boundaries to prevent caregiver burnout 
About 70% of caregivers experience physical fatigue and emotional turmoil while taking care of bipolar patients. This often leads to caregiver burnout. In addition to that, they could face stigma and financial troubles. “Caregiver burnout is real, especially while taking care of patients with chronic illnesses and mental health issues, as many people don't understand what's happening. A lot of stigma and blame games take place too. The sudden, unpredictable shifts in a patient's mood can lead to caregiver fatigue, low mood and periods of stress," says Agarwal. To combat this situation, you could:

  • Share responsibilities with other family members and friends. 
  • Indulge in some ‘me-time’ daily where you do something relaxing. 
  • Ensure you get enough sleep and good nutrition. 
  • Join support groups where you can share your experiences with others and listen to other caregivers' stories for motivation. Agarwal lists out a few of the support groups available in India including Tele-MANAS, the Government of India's Tele Mental Health Assistance and Networking across states; Vandrevala Foundation - 1800-233-3330/ 0261-2662700, and Fortis Hospital National Helpline - 91-8376804102 (24 by 7). 
  • Self-care also includes talking to a therapist who can help you wade through this emotional phase. 

    Caring for someone with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but by educating yourself, providing support, and prioritizing your well-being, you can make a significant difference in their life. You may not be able to control the storm, but you can be the lighthouse in their journey.

Shweta Dravid is a self -confessed explorer who writes on travel, health, wellness, mindfulness and life truths.

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