How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect a Family?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by the affected person’s swinging in mood from manic (depressed) to mania (hyper animated). Some persons with bipolar disorder experience mild to moderate mood swings and symptoms while others with the disorder experience more severe symptoms. If the person shows mild symptoms, the immediate family may, given time, be able to adjust and make accommodation for the illness. When symptoms are more severe, it can be harder for family members who must face challenges on several fronts.

Emotional Repercussions

One symptom of bipolar disorder is an inability to meet one’s responsibilities. If the affected person is the parent, perhaps the father, then this could impact his ability to provide for his family. Reduced income may cause stress and even anger among family members. If mom needs to pick up the income slack then resentment may ensue because she is unable to perform other tasks the family was used to depending on her to accomplish. Family anger may also be directed at health providers who fail to cure the person’s disorder.

Grief is another emotion which can result as people in the family begin to realize that the loved one will likely never be the same as they were before the illness. Former plans or dreams may need to be adjusted and the loss of those hopes can naturally lead to a grieving process.

Anxiety is another emotional repercussion due to bipolar disorder. Children in particular may worry about when the next episode will occur, whether they will be required to give lifetime care and whether or not they have inherited the illness.

Social Repercussions

As the person with bipolar disorder demonstrates severe symptoms, the family’s social sphere may constrict. This could happen because the family is embarrassed about the affected member’s behavior which may at times be aggressive. It could also result from friends who desire to visit, but who feel unsure about what to say or do to be of help and so their visits become less frequent. Whether the shrinking of social outlets happens from within or without, the family still needs a social network. Support groups made up of others whose family member is similarly affected can help tremendously.

Family Structure Repercussions

Taking care of the family member with bipolar disorder may mean that there is little time, money or energy left to spend on outside relationships and activities. This can put everyone on edge. Marital stresses may increase, sibling rivalries may become more of an issue and even shifting of roles among members may take place. For example, if one parent is affected, the well parent may confide in children and use them for emotional support rather than the reverse.

Of course, conflict is present in every family unit whether or not a member is affected with bipolar disorder. As in other families, working on communication and conflict resolution will play a key role in holding the family together and helping all members to thrive. Getting the affected member into counseling and finding the proper medication are the first steps to be taken. Then, the rest of the family will need to become educated about the disorder to keep expectations reality-based.

There is still hope.

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