Many supporters of a loved one with bipolar disorder actually feel shame because of it, but that's because we still have stigma in our society.  Being labeled with mental illness has long been a stigma, and stigma often produces shame. 


Shame leads to secrecy.  Staying quiet about your loved one’s disorder and hiding it at any cost will isolate you from networks of support.[1]  Imagine the difference if you were able to be open about your loved one’s disorder, without secrecy or shame.  You might find that your neighbor, boss, co-worker, and many other people in your world are also supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder, or may even have it themselves.


By openly sharing about it instead of hiding it in shame, you have a greater potential of developing a network of support. Other people may have some good advice for you, like where you might find a good doctor or therapist, or where a good support group is located.


When you feel ashamed about your loved one having bipolar disorder, it only reinforces their own shame about themselves, which is not healthy for either one of you.  This only makes matters worse, and definitely doesn't help your loved one get better.  In fact, it can lead to further isolation on their part.


The past few decades have brought to light that bipolar disorder is a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's Disease, or Multiple Sclerosis.  Logically speaking, there is no reason to feel shame or embarrassment about a physical disorder.  If your loved one had MS, you would be less likely to be living in shame and secrecy.[2]


As a supporter of someone with bipolar disorder, it’s up to you to begin to break the cycle of stigma, discrimination, and prejudice.  As P. Byrne said, “Part of coping with stigma is fighting stigma.” 


One of the first things you can do is to fight it within yourself.  Accept that you may have feelings of shame, but at the same time realize that they are not logical and that they are based on prejudice.  Then let those feelings go.


When you find yourself feeling ashamed about your loved one and their bipolar disorder, remind yourself that they are not their disorder – that their identity is separate from their mental illness.  Begin to counteract your shame with positive feelings about your loved one and who they are as a person, outside of their disorder.


Your loved one has the potential to get better with their bipolar disorder.  With the right management, this illness can be turned around – but they need your support to do it, and they can't do it if you are feeling shame because of them and their disorder.


[1] Byrne, P. (2000) Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Vol. 6 pp. 65-72

[2] Fuller Torrey, E., MD & Knable, Michael B, D.O.  Surviving Manic Depression. Basic Books, 2002, p.1.