Who Do You Need on Your Bipolar Care Team?


Assembling a care team comprised of trained professionals, family, and friends is crucial to building the support system you’ll need while navigating bipolar

The first reactions of someone just recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder often include denial, horror, shame, fear, anger and a host of other negative feelings. Shame and denial have been the strongest for me! (It’s taken many years to overcome them.) These are due to the stigma that still exists against mental illness in general.

When I was finally diagnosed, at age twenty-nine, after a fruitless, exhausting fourteen-year trek from one doctor to another, mental health providers weren’t as well-informed as they are now. I remember feeling angry and thinking to myself, “I’m not crazy. Dr. So and So doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” The psychiatrist who finally diagnosed me, was someone I sought treatment from back when I was sixteen!

She told me that back then, they didn’t like to make mental health diagnoses for teenagers! The psychiatrist explained that some of the normal feelings and behaviors of adolescence could easily mimic mental illness. I was extremely depressed and tired, suffering from severe insomnia, moody and hard to get along with, among other symptoms. The diagnosis was somewhat of a relief! At least there was a name for what I’d experienced for all those years! It wasn’t a personal failure of mine.

The process of assembling a bipolar care team can seem overwhelming, especially in the beginning. Because the disorder affects every aspect of a person’s life, managing it requires a team of professionals, family and friends. Your family and true friends love and are concerned about you, even if they don’t know the most tactful way to express  it.

The typical bipolar management team consists of several players: a mental health care provider, (psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner) to prescribe medication; a therapist, (a psychologist, or other licensed professional to conduct therapy); a medical doctor in family practice; a nutritionist; and possibly someone qualified to teach meditation techniques.  Those are the professional members of the team.

Encourage your closest family members and friends to join the team, informally, to observe your moods and possible behavioral changes. These could signal the beginning of a manic or depressive episode. Many successful bipolar people have a team to help them.

I know that all this information can seem overwhelming, especially in the beginning. Your attitude and that of your team can determine the success or failure of your treatment.  By this I mean that: your acceptance of the diagnosis; medication compliance; the ability to understand the necessary lifestyle changes; overcoming the stigma attached to mental illness and refusing to live in denial are important factors that speak to how smoothly your recovery goes.

In my ongoing journey of managing and recovering from bipolar, I’ve encountered both exceptional and less-than-competent mental health providers. What a sharp, double-edged sword! Some extremely evolved, caring mental health professionals use their knowledge and insight to aid them in truly helping their patients manage bipolar and recover from it.  I had a really gifted psychiatrist for several years who helped me so much. I was in complete remission for two years! I’m also lucky enough to have had a top-notch psychologist for 20 years whose cognitive therapy has been most helpful.

I know that it’s hard to tell at first what kind of mental health providers you have. It takes a little while to observe and evaluate the people whose care you’re under. It’s a great idea to take a trusted family member or friend with you to a couple of sessions, (with the provider’s permission, of course) to get a second opinion. It’s pretty difficult to be objective about something so personal and essential to the quality of your life. If the provider refuses to allow anyone close to you to sit in on even one session, that’s a definite red flag and cause for concern.

The process of assembling a bipolar care team is so individualized and full of hazards along the way. I wish everyone who is experiencing this good luck, sound judgement and the desire to be objective about your mood and coping skills. Adopt the belief that it’s possible to live a high-functioning, productive, positive and enjoyable life, in spite of bipolar. You deserve that! Strive to become the best expert that you can on bipolar disorder.  It can only help you.

About the author
Valerie Harvey grew up in San Francisco. She attended parochial school from kindergarten through high school graduation. Ms. Harvey attended the University of Southern California and Berkeley City College. She has always loved writing, since the first grade. Some of her interests are: reading and writing good books; listening to great music; and attending concerts, poetry readings and book signings; and shopping for clothing and makeup, furniture, bedding, accent pieces, decorations and other home accessories.  Valerie is a published author with two books to her credit: "Love Lights The Way, a Book of Poetry About Love" and "The Problem With the Black Man Is…" which speaks to dating, marriage and relationships within the African-American community.

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