Knowledge is key!
An essential first step is to make sure you understand what depression or bipolar disorder is and how it impacts on the person you care about. Familiarise yourself with the signs and symptoms of depression and elation so that you are better placed to recognise a depressive episode or an elated episode, and particularly how they present in the person you are supporting.
CBT – to improve your understanding and support yourself
It can also be helpful to improve your understanding of the differences between feelings, thoughts, beliefs and actions, and how they can impact on each other. The basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) illustrate how our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions can all impact our mood.
An example that you might relate to is as follows:
You are in a shop waiting your turn to pay when someone you know comes to stand behind you. Immediately you anticipate her asking about the person you are concerned about and how they are.
Notice how thoughts you may have such as ‘Oh no, here we go again’; ‘I know she is just being kind but I wish she didn’t ask’, or ‘I don’t want her to know how he is’ trigger you to feel differently than you had a few moments before. You may feel under pressure, anxious and/or annoyed. You may believe that you have not done enough, anticipate that the other person is judging you and you may react by being curt and changing the subject very quickly.
Or you might believe that you have to answer all questions and may give a detailed explanation about the situation, while all the time wishing that you could end this conversation very quickly.
However you may believe that this person genuinely cares about you, you may feel relieved, think ‘Oh it is good to have friends’ and you may suggest that you both meet for a coffee to catch up
The basis of CBT is that it is not the event, but the meaning of the event that is important.
The Aware Life Skills Programmes are based on the principles of CBT. These programmes are free of charge and may be beneficial by helping you understand a little bit better what may be going on for the person you care about, as well as helping you learn ways to manage the situation and its impact on you. When we are constantly in the ‘giving support’ mode it can be difficult to ask for and actually take support. So many of us tend to bottle up our own feelings and put on a ‘brave face’. There is a very real difference between talking to someone about a situation with someone we care about in a ‘gossipy’ way, and talking to someone we trust about the challenges we experience in caring for someone else.
In the case of bipolar disorder it can be helpful for the person to have a ‘spotter’.
A spotter is someone who can ‘spot’ when the person may be becoming unwell and can let them know. It can be difficult for the person themselves to be aware of the mood changes involved – particularly in periods of elation. It is important to discuss this with the person when they are well and to agree a simple plan. Practice actions that are helpful.
These might include:
- Giving the person you care about space to feel however they feel
- Not taking things personally
- Not rescuing, blaming, accusing or threatening
- Planning and doing one healthy thing every day that you enjoy
- Asking the person how you can help them
Suggest that they do more things that are helpful such as:
- Following the advice of health care professionals where applicable
- Doing things like going for a walk in the fresh air or having a shower as part of a daily routine rather than waiting until they feel like it
- Reducing or eliminating alcohol
- Reducing sugar in the diet
- Looking for and paying attention to one thing each day that is working well
- Ignoring conversations focusing on ‘feeling better’ and increasing conversations on ‘doing things’
- Acknowledging and catching any tendency to dismiss what is going well and focusing only on what is not going well
Two of the best ways you can help someone is to:
- Reach out and let them know you are there
- Get and take support for yourself
This might seem to you to be selfish but it could well give the person you are concerned about space to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. If you are busy doing things to care for yourself, the other person may feel less under pressure and may follow your example.