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What to Do if Someone with Bipolar Refuses Treatment

Bipolar disorder is a scary illness, but sometimes even scarier is the idea of treatment. Logically, going to the doctor, getting a diagnosis and getting help doesn’t sound scary, but if you’re the one faced with psychiatrists, personal, probing questions, destroying what you know and treatments that might make you feel worse before you feel better, you might find the concept daunting.

But what do you do if you’re a loved one of a person with bipolar (or another mental illness) who is refusing treatment?

Why Do People Refuse Treatment?

People refuse treatment for many reasons. As I mentioned, one of them is fear of treatment and fear of the unknown but there are other reasons too, such as:

  • Fear of doctors
  • Lack of trust or belief in medical treatment
  • Fear of side effects
  • No wanting to lose the mania of bipolar disorder
  • Fear of labeling and stigma

What’s a Loved One to Do?

And sometimes, when faced with this wall of reasons not to get treatment, it can seem absolutely hopeless to get the person to see reason. But here’s the thing, this wall of reasons basically comes down to only one thing: fear. And bipolar education creates knowledge and that knowledge dispels fear.

Knowledge of Bipolar Treatment Makes Things Less Scary

So my best advice is to take a very logical approach with a loved one and deal with each fear one at a time. Sit down and ask the person why they are refusing treatment. Only he or she knows for sure, so make sure you at least understand his perspective as it’s absolutely real and valid.

And then start dealing with the fear. If the person is afraid of doctors, this is perfectly reasonable. You can help by researching what will happen in the appointment ahead of time. You can help by researching doctors in the area and finding the best one. You can help by facilitating and going to the appointment. You can help by supporting the patient’s wishes during the appointment. Doctors absolutely can be scary but what a patient really needs is someone on his side so that he doesn’t feel “out-gunned” by someone in a position of authority.

If the fear is lack of trust or faith in medical treatment, this is understandable too. Then it’s time to do research on treatments and find success stories for the person to read.

In short, calm, rational conversation can often pinpoint exactly why a person is refusing help and doing some research on your part can help assuage whatever fear the patient may have.

But What if They Still Refuse Treatment?

Okay, but what if you’ve done all that and the person still refuses treatment?

Well then you might want to remind them of what the problems are and what treatment can do. People only need help for a mental illness once the mental illness becomes a problem in their lives like when a person loses a job, or does poorly in school, or destroys relationships and so on. It’s then that help is needed and so it’s entirely appropriate to remind the person of these problems and talk about how something needs to be done to address them. And if not treatment, then what? Does the person want to live without being able to work? Does he not want personal relationships? Does he want to flunk out of school? Probably not. And treatment is the way to address all these issues.

And if you do all that and you’re supportive and your try your best and the person still refuses to budge, then you need to respect his opinion. I know it’s hard to hear when you love someone, but unless the person is a minor or unless he’s a danger to himself or others, the person absolutely has the right to refuse treatment. We’re adults. We get to make choices and then live with the ramifications thereof, even if our loved ones disagree.

(And once that choice is made, you, as a loved one, have your own choices to make, many of which can be very hard, but that will have to wait for another article.)

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

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40 thoughts on “What to Do if Someone with Bipolar Refuses Treatment”

  1. Thank you for your beautiful blog. I just discovered it and the timing of this post is, for me, uncanny. I am an old friend and 3-year partner of a man who has been diagnosed at least three times with BP and he has been hospitalized three times over the past few decades. I entered into a relationship with him fully aware of his medical history and also aware of the fact that he had stopped taking medication a few years earlier and was instead deeply involved with meditation. What I did not entirely understand was that he believes that his diagnoses were incorrect and there is no behavior health problem at all. The proof for him is that he has not had a psychotic episode since stopping medication and has not required hospitalization. I am not a psychologist, but I can see plainly that his behaviors and habits of thinking are sometimes, well, “crazy,” as you say. My own course of therapy led me to confront my denial about his illness: I wanted to believe that he is well even as it’s plain to me that a behavioral health issue is involved. I decided that I cannot live in denial. I explained to my partner that I love him as he is, I fell in love with him knowing of his history, I accept him as he is (unable to work, but usually occupied in a healthy way), and I am not asking that he seek treatment—that is totally up to him; I did, however, insist that we give the elephant in the room a name. This conversation went surprisingly well, and while he wouldn’t accept BP, he did allow that there might be a behavioral health issue. This, for me, was an unexpected and amazing step forward. What followed were, for me, the best few weeks of our relationship. It felt like we finally had some genuine trust. Now, about a month later, he says he was just playing along with me to make me happy, that there’s nothing wrong with him, and the problem arises from my need to “create crises” to feel better about myself and “control everything” and that I am abusive and incapable of genuine intimacy and that this is just more evidence that I do not love him. (Not surprisingly, I was observing the little cues that indicate he’s headed for a not-so-healthy phase in the days leading up to this reversal.) So if there’s a question in all of this it’s this: how can a partner be supportive and accepting in a situation of total denial? I have drawn a line and made clear that I will not remain in the relationship if it’s based on denying the fact of his mental illness, and the breakup seems to be happening, though he has gone away for a few days to rest before figuring out where he’ll go.

  2. I’ve heard it said that mania feels good. So why get treated? Likewise, it feels real. It feels like you really are master of the universe, versus someone unable to recognize you are ill. So my guess is people with mania don’t want to get treated, cuz they don’t want to lose the high and because they don’t believe the high is an illness.

    Depressive stage is more traditional reasons to refuse treatment. Belief you’ll get over it on own; too depressed to get treatment; don’t want a life on meds; and the reasons you mentioned.

    The best advice I’ve heard is Xavier Amadors’ “Listen, Empathize, Agree, and partner.

  3. Thank you, MIPO. I read about LEAP a couple of years ago, when I first broached the topic of his behavioral health history and my request that he resume treatment, or at least seek a consultation (after our first year together). That met with anger and vehement denial that there had ever been an underlying MI and the problem was actually mine. While I never accepted this , I decided to take the slow approach, believing that if I could at least listen and empathize, perhaps we could develop a partnership and some tactics for dealing with episodes of compulsive shopping, self-medicating, breakdowns at social events, etc. This was the approach I took for the next two years. It’s not working, and I believe this is because we cannot move forward with the LEAP approach if we don’t agree that there is an underlying MI. I have always said that whether to seek treatment and what sort is entirely his decision, but that I can no longer be complicit in his total denial that there is an underlying MI. Problems that arise from his MI are always attributed to external circumstances or are dismissed as “everyone does this/feels this way”. I have come to the conclusion that unless he can acknowledge that there is some sort of behavioral health issue in play, there is really no possibility of a healthy role for me in his life, because the role he wants me to play is as someone who will support his belief that he is just fine. That, to me, seems actually more harmful than healthy.

  4. Twenty years ago I went into a severe depression and saw a social worker/counselor who suggested I see a psychiatrist, I was 35, and flat out refused.The idea that I needed a psychiatrist was frightening, even though I knew that feeling and acting like a yo-yo since my teens was not normal. My son’s friend’s mother was on lithium and the side effects scared the daylights out of me. So for years my family endured Dr.Jekyll and and Mrs.Hyde. I went into another severe depression, the meds didn’t, and a nurse practioner suggested I see a psychiatrist. This time I listened, and the Pdoc prescribed Lamictal,Abilify,and Seroquel.I often lament all the years lost to bipolar and the denial that anything was wrong. I believe that the biggest step is to accept that something is amiss and seek help.

  5. Thank you Natasha for your Blogs on Bipolar disorder.I am a Bipolar,inspite of my best effort i could not tolerate quitipine so i gave up at my own.

  6. yes I have leared
    do not take end up In the mental hospital so now I take my meds and go to counseling and stay halfway sane I think bean in the hosp for not taking meds or the meds stop working right about 7 or 8 times after awhile you lose track .

  7. I’m married 2 1/2 years now to a bipolar. It’s so hard to keep it together. He’s refusing to take his meds. He took them for a month and stopped. I can’t talk to him about anything. He spends money like it grows on trees. He accuses me of things I haven’t done; and gets out of control with accusing. I sometimes think of leaving, but feel I need to be here for him. That as well as I love him. We have good days and bad. The bad is always my fault for some reason. I just don’t know what to do. Eggshells is an understatement.

  8. Kathryn,
    Couples therapy with someone who knows and understands bipolar disorder (likely a psychologist is often the best bet here, but it doesn’t have to be).

    If you can’t get him to go, at least go for yourself–for your own sanity. You’ll at least have a sounding board, but more importantly you’ll be able to gain some perspective and skill as to how you can handle those difficult situations that are so hurtful.

    Good luck!

  9. My son is bipolar and is now in jail for his actions being off the medicine. I am visiting him in jail and see that he is still manic. The court system is a long process and I have to be patient. My question is if he never gets treatment again and remains in this state can he become schizophrenic or worse and have to be institutionalizaed? I worry that he may never accept the medicine again.

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