Bipolar disorder - Living with 

Living with bipolar disorder 

Although it is usually a long-term condition, effective treatments for bipolar disorder, combined with self-help techniques, can limit the condition's impact on your everyday life.

Staying active and eating well

Eating well and keeping fit are important for everyone. Exercise can also help reduce the symptoms of bipolar disorder, particularly the depressive symptoms.

It may also give you something to focus on and provide a routine, which is important for many people.

A healthy diet, combined with exercise, may also help limit weight gain, which is a common side effect of medical treatments for bipolar disorder.

Some treatments also increase the risk of developing diabetes, or worsen the illness in people that already have it. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising are an important way of limiting that risk.

You should have a check-up at least once a year to monitor your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

This will include recording your weight, checking your blood pressure and having any appropriate blood tests.

Read more information about losing weight and improving fitness.

Self-care and self-management

Self-care

Self-care is an essential part of daily life. It involves taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing with support from the people involved in your care.

It includes staying fit and maintaining good physical and mental health, preventing illness or accidents, and caring more effectively for minor ailments and long-term conditions.

People with long-term conditions can benefit enormously from being helped with self-care. They can live longer, have less pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue, have a better quality of life, and be more active and independent.

Read more about the national service framework for people with long-term conditions

Self-management programmes

Self-management programmes aim to help people with bipolar disorder take an active part in their own recovery so they're not controlled by their condition.

One course run by Bipolar UK aims to teach people with bipolar disorder how to manage their illness. The programme includes information about:

  • triggers and warning signs
  • coping strategies and self-medication
  • support networks and action plans
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • drawing up an advance decision
  • complementary therapies
  • action plans

There are other courses, such as those run by Self Management UK, for mild to moderate mental health conditions.

Courses such as these help people who may feel distressed and uncertain about their bipolar disorder improve their own lives.

Talking about it

Some people with bipolar disorder find it easy to talk to family and friends about their condition and its effects. Other people find it easier to turn to charities and support groups.

Many organisations run self-help groups that can put you in touch with other people with the condition. This enables people to share helpful ideas and helps them realise they're not alone in feeling the way they do. These organisations also provide online support in forums and blogs.

Some useful charities, support groups and associations include:

Talking therapies are useful for managing bipolar disorder, particularly during periods of stability.

Services that can help

You may be involved with many different services during treatment for bipolar disorder. Some are accessed through referral from your GP, others through your local authority.

These services may include:

  • community mental health teams (CMHT) – these provide the main part of local specialist mental health services. They offer assessment, treatment and social care to people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
  • early intervention teams – these provide early identification and treatment for people who have the first symptoms of psychosis. Your GP may be able to refer you directly to an early intervention team.
  • crisis services – these allow people to be treated at home, instead of in hospital, for an acute episode. These are specialist mental health teams that deal with crises that occur outside normal office hours.
  • acute day hospital – these are an alternative to inpatient care in a hospital. You can visit every day or as often as you need.
  • assertive outreach teams – these deliver intensive treatment and rehabilitation in the community for people with severe mental health problems, providing rapid help in a crisis. Staff often visit people at home and liaise with other services, such as your GP or social services. They can also help with practical problems, such as helping to find housing and work, or doing your shopping and cooking.

Avoiding drugs and alcohol

Some people with bipolar disorder use alcohol or illegal drugs to try to take away their pain and distress. Both have well-known harmful physical and social effects and are not a substitute for effective treatment and good healthcare.

Some people with bipolar disorder find they can stop misusing alcohol and drugs once they're using effective treatment.

Others may have separate but related problems of alcohol and drug abuse, which may need to be treated separately.

Avoiding alcohol and illegal drugs is an important part of recovery from episodes of manic, hypomanic or depressive symptoms, and can help you gain stability.

Read more about alcohol misuse and drug misuse.

Money and benefits

It's important to avoid too much stress, including work-related stress. If you're employed, you may be able to work shorter hours or in a more flexible way, particularly if job pressure triggers your symptoms.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, all employers must make reasonable adjustments to make the employment of people with disabilities possible. This can include people with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.

A range of benefits is available to people with bipolar disorder who cannot work as a result of their mental illness. These may include:

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Living with or caring for someone with bipolar disorder

People living with or caring for someone with bipolar disorder can have a tough time. During episodes of illness, the personalities of people with bipolar disorder may change, and they may become abusive or even violent.

Sometimes social workers and the police may become involved. Relationships and family life are likely to feel the strain.

If you're the nearest relative (as defined by the Mental Health Act 1983) of a person with bipolar disorder, you have certain rights that can be used to protect the person's interests.

These include requesting that the local social services authority asks an approved mental health professional to consider whether the person with bipolar disorder should be detained in hospital (also known as "sectioning").

You may feel at a loss if you're caring for someone with bipolar disorder. Finding a support group and talking to other people in a similar situation might help.

If you're having relationship or marriage difficulties, you can contact specialist relationship counsellors, who can talk things through with you and your partner.

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Dealing with suicidal feelings

Having suicidal thoughts is a common depressive symptom of bipolar disorder. Without treatment, these thoughts may get stronger.

Some research has shown the risk of suicide for people with bipolar disorder is 15 to 20 times greater than the general population.

Studies have also shown that as many as 25-50% of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once.

The risk of suicide seems to be higher earlier in the illness, so early recognition and help may prevent it.

If you're feeling suicidal or you're having severe depressive symptoms, contact your GP, care co-ordinator or the local mental health emergency services as soon as possible. 

If you can't or don't want to contact these people, contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. You can call them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Alternatively, visit the Samaritans website or email jo@samaritans.org.

Self-harm

Self-harm (sometimes called self-injury) is often a symptom of mental health problems such as bipolar disorder.

For some people, self-harm is a way of gaining control over their lives or temporarily distracting themselves from mental distress. It may not be related to suicide or attempted suicide.

Want to know more? 

Recommended communities

Online communities help you talk to people, share your experiences and learn from others.

The SANE Support Forum allows people to share their feelings and provide mutual support to anyone with mental health issues, as well as their friends and family.

Bipolar UK, a national charity, also runs an online discussion forum for people with bipolar disorder, their families and carers.

Page last reviewed: 08/04/2014

Next review due: 08/04/2016

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

mrshovey said on 07 September 2013

After being misdiagnosed twice, I have finally been diagnosed bi polar, something I suspected I had for ages. I have now been put on Priadel which is a big relief

I have noticed that a lot of people on here are struggling to get diagnosed. I did as well. What worked for me was keeping a mood diary, identifying triggers to moods, how long the mood changes lasted, what happened and how I felt while I had them, sleeping patterns and appetite changes, which are all a key part of bi polar, and taking it to a psychiatrist.

I was lucky and had a supportive GP. If your Dr doesnt listen you MUST get a second opinion and ask to see a psychristrist who can diagnose you. My reckless spending nearly ruined my life. If you keep hitting a brick wall, keep trying different doctors and oen day you WILL get there, but if you make it very clear in a mood diary, they should spot it. Mental illness is very complex and many symptoms mimic others, and it's very hard to get the correct diagnosis if you just talk about mood swings. I was misdiagnosed before because I was silly, and didnt even think about other symptoms, such as too much sleep or two little. I really hope everyone who is struggling gets the help they need soon

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Calc28 said on 17 February 2012

I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the NHS. My partner has had severe depression and numerous suicide attempts over the past number of years. As a family we have researched many of the symptoms and they best fit with bipolar disorder. Each time he has been referred for an assesment, they have told us that he is neither depressed, suicidal nor bipolar, but rather has an inability to cope with stress or pressure. Neither his job nor our family provoke traumatic or stressful occurrences which would warrant such a reaction.

The illness has been extremely destructive and traumatising for us as a family and I am in no doubt that unless a diganosis is made and the appropriate help / medication given soon, the consequence will be that he will succeed in taking his own life.

Can anyone advise of similar experiences with the NHS or difficulty in obtaining a diagnosis? Any help / guidance which can be given on getting to the right people and getting a diagnosis would be invaluable to us. We are desperate.

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bermudj said on 19 December 2011

Completely disagree with the statement that one can not prevent episodes. I have Bipolar-I and I manage the illness without taking any medication and I prevent futher episodes.

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