Cognitive–behavioural therapy can lead to significant improvements in relapse and inter-episode functioning for individuals with an established course of bipolar disorder. Both psychiatric and psychological models of bipolar disorder suggest that there may be additional benefits in offering this approach earlier in the illness course. This paper reports on the application of a modified cognitive–behavioural approach for individuals after first diagnosis of bipolar disorder using a single case approach across seven participants. Evidence is reported for improvements in mood symptoms and hopelessness following treatment, as well as increased self-control behaviours, more stable activity patterns and increased ability to detect and coping with early warning signs. Implications of these initial findings for future research are discussed. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.