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Bipolar disorder

Helping someone with bipolar disorder

Often people who are close to the person with bipolar disorder are under stress.

They may be confused and unsure about the illness and their role in helping the person recover. They may be afraid of accidentally doing something that could make things worse.

Sometimes when a person with bipolar disorder is unwell they may turn against people they are normally close to.

Is it an emergency?

Get help immediately if the person:

  • has deliberately hurt themselves
  • talks about suicide or about harming someone else
  • is disorientated (does not know who they are, where there are, or what time of day it is)
  • has hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that are not real) or delusions (very strange beliefs, often based on the content of the hallucinations)
  • is confused or not making sense
  • makes unrealistic plans.

If the person has any of these symptoms, call 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand, or visit the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

More about helping a suicidal person 

How to help someone with bipolar disorder

If you are the family, friend or carer of someone with bipolar disorder, these are some things you can do to help:

  • Stay in touch with person’s health-care team (with the person’s consent).
  • Have a plan for what to do if the person shows signs of hypomania or mania.
  • While someone is manic and not thinking clearly, try to stop them from making important decisions so they don’t risk losing money, their job or their reputation.
  • Reassure the person that you are on their side.

Things that do not help

Try to avoid these common reactions:

  • blaming the person for their actions when they are not able to judge correctly
  • telling the person to change their behaviour or act normally – instead, explain how their actions affect you.

What happens if the person doesn’t want help?

When someone with bipolar disorder has symptoms of hypomania or mania, sometimes they don’t realise that they are thinking and acting strangely. Some people enjoy the feeling of mania and don’t want it to stop.

They might believe they don’t need their medication, stop taking it, or hide it.

Sometimes a person has to go through several episodes of mania before they agree to take medication.

This can make it hard for families and friends, who can see the benefits of medication. It can lead to disagreements between the person and their family.

Generally an adult has the right to refuse treatment. But they can be treated without their consent to reduce the risk of serious harm to themselves or others, or the risk that their health will seriously worsen.

Support and information for families


Bipolar Caregivers

Mental Health Carers Helpline
1300 554 660

SANE Helpline
1800 187 263

New Zealand

Supporting Families in Mental Illness
0800 732 825

Page last reviewed Feb 2017 | C1034V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.