How to Help a Loved One with Bipolar Depression

Last Updated: 29 Oct 2020

When you love a person who is hurting, you want to somehow love your way out of their depression. This rarely works. Thankfully, you can learn what does work, like helping them learn to harness their own inner drill sergeant.

support loved one bipolar depression self-talk drill sergeant

Why Love Isn’t Enough

Bipolar depression is an illness, like diabetes, so—unfortunately!— love is not a treatment.

I learned this from my ten-year relationship with a man who has bipolar, as well as living with my own depression for many years. Love is important, and those of us with bipolar need it, but it can only go so far in helping us find a management plan that works.

The answer—and, believe me, it works—is planning ahead with a specific strategy you can use when the depression shows up. My book Get It Done When You’re Depressed has 50 of these strategies.

Here is how YOU can use such strategies with a loved one.

  1. Be a detective. Learn the first signs of loved one’s depression by making your “Thinks, Says, & Does” symptom lists
  2. Be clear on what techniques you’ve tried, in your efforts to help, that don’t work. Then simply don’t try those approaches again.
  3. Understand that the ideas I share are NOT intuitive, so they will feel a bit odd at first. Just know that they have been tested for over a decade, with many thousands of people, and they work.
  4. All new ways of being take practice.
  5. Learn the strategies yourself and introduce them to a loved one when the loved one is stable. This is not always possible, but it’s by far the best way to use the system.
  6. If a loved one is mildly depressed, that’s the next best time to introduce a strategy.
  7. Moderate depression means that you will probably have to do more of the work, but it’s still a great time to teach the strategies.
  8. Serious, in-bed, can’t-move depression is not the time to introduce the strategies to a loved one; but it is the time for you to learn the system as you help a loved one get out of the depression through medical treatment.

Be aware: This process usually takes a YEAR or more. I know. Humans want everything to be fast. It’s not fast. It’s a process. You create a foundation by educating yourself and then slowly and surely introducing the strategies into your life. Then, and only then, can you introduce them to a loved one.


“Be Your Own Drill Sergeant”

Let’s start with one of my favorites, Strategy #6, “Be Your Own Drill Sergeant.” (If you don’t have the book, you can read more here.)

This strategy teaches the idea that a person who is depressed still has an inner guide that can rise up and help them even when they feel hopeless and helpless.

What follows is an excerpt from my book:

Even if you’re the type who responds well to softer language, you probably have days when talking to yourself in a calm and gentle way won’t work. It might be that the depressions won’t lift and getting things done is impossible, even if you use a certain approach that has helped in the past. These are the days when you must step aside and let someone or something else take over. Sometimes you need to call upon your inner drill sergeant and let him or her take over and get you back on track. This takes imagination and a willingness to be slightly silly, but you can do it. 

I use this technique every day when I’m depressed. I created it in the ‘1990s, when I realized that what my brain was saying was not my reality.

I am in bed.
I can’t move.
The depression cascades over my head.
I feel hopeless and helpless.

My thoughts: Not another day of this! I can’t go on like this! Why is my life so hard! Other people have it so much easier! What is wrong with me! Why am I so unhappy!

All of this before I even get out of bed!

In the past, I lived this so completely, I didn’t know it was serious depression. It enveloped me. I was often in bed for weeks. 

One day, I thought to myself, People in the army have to get up. People who are in a marching band or those who have others depending on them have to get up. How do I get up?

And then I heard my inner drill sergeant voice:

Julie! Get Out of Bed!
Just get up, young lady! Throw off the covers! Put those feet down!
You did it!!!
Next step is to brush your teeth, wash your face, and get dressed. Come on, woman!
You can do it!!!
Now get dressed. Come on! Come on!

As I got better at this, I could picture others telling me what to do:

Scarlett O’Hara.
My grandmother!

Once I got the energy from the drill sergeant–type words, I felt my own thinking change:

I think I can!
I can do this!
I will do this!
Get up!
Get out!
Get things done!

How to Use This Technique with a Loved One

I am NOT suggesting that you say these things to a loved one. Not at all.

Instead, I suggest you read Strategy #6 and offer it as a suggestion to a loved one simply as a tool that is there for them when the depression starts its unkind and oppressive chatter.

Here’s a script you can use to introduce the idea of the inner drill sergeant:

Honey, I know there are days when getting up is hard. I know that there are struggles that I can’t even imagine. Julie Fast has an idea that works for her. When the low mood is keeping her down, she finds what she calls her “inner drill sergeant,” and lets it talk to her on the days she feels she can’t move. If you want to read about it. I left the book on the kitchen table. It’s Strategy #6.

bp Magazine has many resources on how you can help a loved one who lives with bipolar depression. Love is very important, of course! But we do need more than love to help someone manage an illness.

You can learn the strategies that work, practice them yourself, and then introduce them to the person with depression. This changes lives!


Originally posted August 25, 2020.

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. Kelly, Have you reached out a therapist or a family member? How are you doing

  2. I m just realizing this moment, that I m in a dangerous bipolar episode, and that everything you’re saying here is why my life has put me on the the road, literally, to freedom from my past, and into a more hopeful future. Ive been on the road since march of last year, covid. While I have learned about myself inwardly, Ive been believing I am a victim of my past. Instead, I see I m on even bigger trouble than I ever imagined, and why I m out here on the road. Ltd my mania. Can I talk to someone?

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