Family members of the more than 10 million adults with bipolar disorder in the United States often see their own heath suffer from the demands of taking care of them.

With a four-year, $2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, nurse scientists at Case Western Reserve University will conduct one of the first studies to test ways family members can maintain and improve their health while caring for relatives with bipolar disorder.

“Often, family caregivers experience the unpredictable ups and downs of their relatives living with bipolar disorder,” said Jaclene A. Zauszniewski, principal investigator on the NIH grant. “At the same time, caregivers may also be raising their own families, holding down jobs and leading their own lives.”

Jaclene Zauszniewski

Jaclene Zauszniewski, the Kate Hanna Harvey Professor in Community Health Nursing at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness leading to extreme mood swings and disruptive symptoms that challenge a person’s ability to function normally, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Previous studies have shown that caregivers of people with bipolar disorder have higher levels of distress than those with diabetes, hypertension, asthma or dementia. They also suffer from significantly more mental and physical health problems than the general population, which leads to greater use of mental health and primary care services.

“Stress on caregivers can become so intense that it affects their health, which may make them unable to care for the diagnosed family member and may worsen the condition of the relative with bipolar disorder,” said Zauszniewski, the Kate Hanna Harvey Professor in Community Health Nursing at Case Western Reserve’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

Based on clinical and written tests, researchers will match caregivers with ways to self-manage their health that best fits their mental and physical needs. For example, caregivers with low variability in their heart rates—a sign of stress—will be taught breathing techniques designed to have calming effects.

Researchers may also prescribe training in specific self-help and help-seeking skills to aid caregivers in coping with the ups and downs of their family member’s bipolar disorder.

Such techniques break from the traditional one-size-fits-all approach of providing education about bipolar disorder to family members before assessing their needs or preferences.

“Existing strategies for these caregivers have had little effect on improving their health,” said Zauszniewski. “If we can get to a place where these family members can manage their distress and remain healthy, then they’ll be able to provide better care for their relatives.”

Researchers believe the study’s results could also be applied to caregivers of people with other chronic mental or physical conditions, Zauszniewski said.

The NIH’s National Institute of Nursing Research awarded the grant.

This article was originally published Dec. 1.