Bipolar Depression: Understanding Your Loved One’s Experience

Date Posted

July 27, 2023

Author

Kayla Mason

Bipolar Depression_Woman in Two Mood States

Bipolar Depression_Couple Turning on TVIn recent years, commercials for prescription medications for “bipolar depression” have run all day and night. You’ve probably heard the ads so often that you can name one or more of the medications that are on the market for bipolar depression. Bipolar depression is not a medical diagnosis; rather, it refers to depression that occurs within a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to live with and difficult to treat. But caregivers can provide essential support to their loved ones when they understand the different aspects of bipolar disorder. Although bipolar disorder is a chronic condition, people with bipolar disorder can have productive, fulfilling lives, especially with proper treatment and consistent self-care.

Bipolar Disorder Explained

Bipolar disorder is a medical condition marked by episodes in which moods, energy, and activity levels significantly affect a person’s functioning. People living with bipolar disorder experience mood states, whether elevated (manic or hypomanic), depressed, or mixed. An individual in a manic state may feel energetic, not need sleep, and behave impulsively. An individual with bipolar disorder in a depressive state (i.e., bipolar depression) may feel hopeless and have no energy or motivation.

Bipolar Depression

“Bipolar depression” is sometimes used in the medical and pharmaceutical fields to refer to depression that occurs within bipolar disorder. While the symptoms of bipolar depression parallel those of major depressive disorder (i.e., clinical depression), the approach to treatment is different. Antidepressant medications can be very effective for people with major depressive disorder, but are often not the best choice for treating bipolar depression, at least not as a single medication. A person with bipolar disorder will often be treated with a mood stabilizer, with or without an antidepressant.

How You Can Help

Familiarize yourself with the different states of bipolar disorder and available treatments. Treatment options for depression within bipolar disorder include medications such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics and atypical antipsychotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and antidepressant-antipsychotic combinations.  It is important to remain patient while finding the most suitable medications, as this can take time.

Bipolar Depression_Two Friends Talking in Living RoomAdditionally, although there can be initial improvement in symptoms in a couple of weeks, many of these medications can take up to 8 weeks to take full effect. You can help by reminding your loved one that healing isn’t linear and that it will take time. Keep in mind that new side effects can emerge with any new medication. Write down any side effects that you notice and help your loved one communicate changes and concerns with their prescriber.

Psychotherapy is another integral part of treating bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanies it. Therapy can be provided for individuals, families, and groups. Some therapies that help specifically with bipolar disorder are: Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychoeducation, and Family Focused Therapy. Be open to participating in therapy with your loved one.

It may be surprising that one of the most important things a person can do to manage their bipolar disorder is to maintain a regular sleep cycle with adequate quality sleep. This is a challenge for anyone! But it can be especially tricky for a person with bipolar disorder, when mania creates a perception that they don’t need sleep, and bipolar depression brings fatigue and a perceived need for extra sleep. Your loved one’s therapist or health care provider can help to address sleep issues, including referral to a sleep specialist if needed.

You Are Not Alone 

Living with bipolar disorder and depression is not an easy task. Loving someone with the condition can be very stressful, as we want to help ease our loved ones’ suffering as much as possible. In addition to emotional support, caregivers support their loved ones by advocating for care, monitoring medication effects, helping with transportation and child care, finding providers, addressing insurance and payment issues, and more.

In addition to emotional support, caregivers support their loved ones by advocating for care, monitoring medication effects, helping with transportation and child care, finding providers, addressing insurance and payment issues, and more. Caregivers to people living with bipolar disorder can find support groups online, such as Courage to Caregivers. You can also find inspiration in the family stories on familyaware.org and learn more about caregiving with our Family Caregiver Toolkit.


Kayla Mason HeadshotKayla is a thirty-two-year-old graduate student living in the Pioneer Valley with her fiancé, Jake. Kayla graduated from Bay Path University with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. She lives with various mental health diagnoses and is passionate about supporting others living with mental illness. She is currently a graduate student in the M.A. Communications program at Southern New Hampshire University and will graduate in 2024. Besides bringing awareness to mental health, Kayla is passionate about animal welfare and keeping our environment clean and habitable. You can read more from Kayla on her personal blog at: www.kaylamason.blog.