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10 Things Not to Do If You, a Friend or a Loved One Has Bipolar Disorder

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Updated April 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

1. Patients: Don't Hide Symptoms from Your Doctor

Did you know that it takes an average of nine to 10 years for people to be properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder? There are two big reasons for this. One is that doctors miss the diagnosis all too frequently, even when hypomanic symptoms are brought to their attention. The other is failure of patients to report symptoms.

More often than not, it is depression symptoms that send people to see a psychiatrist or other therapist. You may have viewed past hypomanic symptoms as just "not depressed," "feeling like a normal person" or "feeling good."

If you respond to antidepressant therapy, you may think, "Wow, it's working" and not recognize that you've gone into a hypomanic state (the severity of mania makes it much more likely to be recognized). But if you don't relate your behaviors to your doctor when you're "feeling good," he or she may not realize you've gone too far in the opposite direction from depression until the symptoms escalate into serious problems.

2. Patients: Don't Let Your Doctor Skip Physical Tests

There are physical illnesses whose symptoms can overlap with those of bipolar disorder and complicate its diagnosis. They include lupus, epilepsy and Lyme disease, among others.

3. Patients: Don't Stop Taking Your Medications on Your Own

Unless you're having a severe side effect, you should never discontinue medications without your doctor's supervision. Abruptly stopping some medications can cause serious side effects, too. For example, the reaction many people experience when they discontinue certain antidepressants is so unpleasant it even has a name: SSRI discontinuation syndrome. If you want to stop taking one or more of your medications, talk to your doctor first!

4. Patients: Don't Keep Toxic People in Your Life

You know who they are - the people who hurt your feelings constantly, the ones who drain your energy, the ones who attack you again and again. Depending on the relationship, it can be relatively easy to very difficult to actually remove a toxic person from your life. But it's essential that you do something about it.

5. Patients: Stop Damaging Your Body

There are some dangers inherent in bipolar disorder that make it more likely you'll do harmful things to yourself or be intimidated into letting medical personnel give you inadequate or even improper treatment. It's up to you to take action about these issues. Understand why they happen and what you need to do, with insights from others to help you.

6. Patients: Don't Meddle with Your Medications

Suppose you've been prescribed 150 milligrams of medication X, 30 milligrams of medication Y and 50 to 75 milligrams of medication Z per day. That means your doctor has given you permission to take from two to three 25-milligram tablets of drug Z in a day depending on your judgment. But you don't think that's enough, so you start taking 100 milligrams of drug Z or 60 milligrams of drug Y. Almost immediately you start having side effects, have a mood change or another problem occurs. Think that's far-fetched? Think again.

7. Parents: Don't Refuse to Think About Giving Your Bipolar Child Medications

It's understandable that a parent may be uneasy about giving a bipolar child the types of strong medications that are needed to guide that child toward stability. Certainly there are risks involved with these drugs, as there are with all prescription drugs. But remember that your child is suffering, and there are few other options to help him or her.

8. Parents: Don't Miss Out on Opportunities to Help Your Child at School

Children with bipolar disorder often need special assistance at school. They can have trouble focusing, have anger issues and be easily tormented by other children. Also, it's quite common for a bipolar child to have co-morbid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and to take medications at school. You need to know your child's rights and implement the available programs.

9. Loved Ones and Friends: Don't Challenge the Diagnosis or Dismiss the Treatment

I can't tell you how often people with bipolar disorder tell me that their friends or family members refuse to accept their diagnosis or refuse to learn anything about bipolar illness. Common responses include: "Oh, you're just trying to get attention;" "Snap out of it, get a job and quit whining;" "If you only (prayed more, tried harder, ate more vegetables, etc.) you'd be fine; or simply, "I don't believe it," ending the conversation.

Bipolar disorder is a serious illness that can disrupt every phase of life and even cause death. It can be disabling. Don't refuse to listen and learn.

10. Family Members: Don't Destroy Yourself for a Loved One's Bipolar Disorder

This is an exceedingly difficult issue. When do your needs outweigh the needs of your bipolar spouse, parent or grown child? Only you can decide, but if the time comes when you need to make the decision, do whatever is necessary to take the best care of yourself. Insights from others may help you if you're in this position, and we offer several.

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