Evidence-Based Reviews

Unipolar vs bipolar depression: A clinician’s perspective

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Our approach to treatment

Patients with mood disorders often benefit from a combination of pharmacologic management and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is particularly important in addressing the functional impairment, diminished self-worth, and interpersonal conflicts that often accompany clinical depression. Several styles or systems of psycho­therapy have been developed to benefit patients with mood disorders. Their effectiveness may depend on the patient’s ability to gain insight,37 but in our opinion, the most important attribute of helpful psychotherapy is the rapport established between the patient and the therapist, and the therapist’s ability to empathize with the patient and instill in the patient a sense of optimism and hope. We often recommend that patients attend meetings of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), a national support group with chapters throughout the country. Patients often find that attending these meetings is both educational and emotionally rewarding.

The foundational pharmacologic treatment for bipolar disorder is a mood stabilizer. The medications we consider to be effective mood stabilizers (some with an FDA indication for bipolar maintenance, some without) are lithium carbonate, divalproex sodium, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, and lamotrigine.

Each of these mood stabilizers has its advantages, disadvantages, risks, and adverse effects. For example, although divalproex is a reliable mood stabilizer, it has a significant risk of causing birth defects if taken during pregnancy and can cause increased appetite and weight gain. Carbamazepine has significant drug interactions and the potential to cause neurologic adverse effects, while oxcarbazepine, a derivative of carbamazepine, has fewer drug interactions but is more likely to cause hyponatremia. Lamotrigine must be titrated very slowly to reduce the risk of a potentially fatal skin rash (ie, Stevens-Johnson syndrome or toxic epidermal necrolysis). Lithium is effective but has a significant adverse-effect burden: impairment of renal function with long-term use, nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, hypothyroidism, hyperparathyroidism, acne, and weight gain. Lithium also has potential interactions with multiple commonly prescribed medications, including antihypertensives and diuretics, as well as over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs) have mood stabilizing, antidepressant, and anti-manic properties and are often useful in managing bipolar disorder. In our experience, for patients with bipolar disorder, SGAs are best used in combination with a mood stabilizer. Although virtually all SGAs have demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of psychosis and some phases of bipolar disorder, the newer agents (aripiprazole, brexpiprazole, lurasidone, and cariprazine) are relatively free of metabolic adverse effects such as weight gain, abnormal cholesterol levels, increased prolactin levels, insulin resistance, and increased risk of diabetes.

Antidepressants may be effective in treating unipolar depression, but when treating bipolar depression, they should be used cautiously and only in combination with a mood stabilizer.

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