How To Explain Bipolar Disorder to Loved Ones

Tips to ease you through the conversation

Should you reveal you have bipolar?
Should you reveal you have bipolar?. PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images

How do you explain your or a loved one's bipolar disorder to others? Here are a few tips to help you organize your thoughts.

Be Simple and Straightforward

The first tip is to strip down to the basics. Explain that people with bipolar disorder have mood swings, from elation to depression, that do not necessarily have anything to do with what's going on in their lives. Explain how this is because bipolar disorder is caused by electrochemical abnormalities in the brain, and not a reflection of a loved one's behavior, words, or mood.

This may also be a good time to state that there is a genetic link to bipolar disorder, which may be why you have a family history.

In addition, depending on your loved one's reaction and interest, you may want to break your bipolar disorder down even more, describing how you can develop different mood states, like mania, depression, or a mixed state. Defining these moods may be helpful for your loved one, so they can better understand how you feel or why you act the way you do sometimes.

For instance, you could state that mania or manic does not mean "crazy." Rather, it refers to people who exude high emotions and extreme energy and appear to talk rapidly and not need much sleep. This is also a good time to describe your personal experience of mania—for example, maybe you shop excessively when you are in a manic episode or maybe you talk so quickly that you often do not make sense.

Explain the Importance of Recognizing Depression

Describing what a depressive episode in bipolar disorder may look like to a loved one is very important.

It's also important to emphasize that during these times, your loved one needs to take you seriously and seek out medical attention if you are talking about suicide, or they have worries that you are suicidal.

Specific Statements to Consider About Seeking Help

It's a good idea to talk to your psychiatrist about certain behaviors that are alarming and then to fill in the blanks, so to speak:

  • "Don't worry if I _________ [behavior you and your doctor agree is symptomatic but not dangerous by itself]."
  • "If I start ________ [behavior you and your doctor agree is dangerous], call my doctor, or take me to the hospital."

Going Further Into Your Disorder Is Your Choice

It is ultimately up to you how much you want to share about your illness with others. You may want to describe a particular symptom of bipolar disorder that bothers you.

For example, maybe you have inappropriate and angry outbursts. This may be a good time to apologize for saying hurtful things in the past—explain that you need medication to help control your angry outbursts and that you do not want to be hurtful. 

Another symptom you may want to clarify is rapid cycling, as the shifts in mood from being ultra-excited one day to deeply depressed the next, can be rather alarming for loved ones.

You can also decide if you want to tell your loved one what medication(s) you are taking, the potential side effects, or it makes you feel. This may help your loved one understand you and your disease better.

Debunk Myths About Bipolar Disorder

It's also a good idea to clarify common misconceptions about bipolar disorder. For instance, you may state what while TV shows like to show people with bipolar disorder as criminals, only a small percentage of them are ever violent, and you are not one of them.

A Word From Verywell

Remember, before you can educate others about your bipolar disorder, you need to understand it yourself—so gain as much knowledge as you can and encourage family members to read up on it too.

Finally, give careful consideration to whom and to what extent you share these very personal details about yourself. There are those who will simply never understand—and that is OK.

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