The Expert Consensus Guideline Series. Treatment of depression in women

Postgrad Med. 2001 Mar;(Spec No):1-107.


Objectives: Women constitute two-thirds of patients suffering from common depressive disorders. The treatment of depression in women is therefore a substantial public health concern. High-quality, empirical data on depressive disorders specific to women are limited. As a result, there are no comprehensive evidence-based practice guidelines on the best treatment approaches for these illnesses. We conducted a consensus survey of expert opinion on the treatment of 4 depressive conditions specific to women: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), depression in pregnancy, postpartum depression in a mother choosing to breast-feed, and depression related to perimenopause/menopause.

Method: After reviewing the literature and convening a work group of leading experts, we prepared a written survey covering a total of 858 treatment options in 117 specific clinical situations. Depression severity (mild to severe) was specified for most clinical situations. Treatment options included a broad range of pharmacological, psychosocial, and alternative medicine approaches. Most options were scored using a modified version of the RAND 9-point scale for rating appropriateness of medical decisions. We identified 40 national experts, 36 (90%) of whom completed the survey. Consensus on each option was defined as a non-random distribution of scores by chi-square "goodness-of-fit" test. We assigned a categorical rank (first line/preferred choice, second line/alternate choice, third line/usually inappropriate) to each option based on the 95% confidence interval around the mean rating. Guideline tables indicating preferred treatment strategies were then developed for key clinical situations.

Results: The expert panel reached consensus on 76% of the options, with greater consensus in situations involving severe symptoms. For women with severe symptoms in each of the 4 central disorder areas we asked about, the first-line recommendation was for antidepressant medication combined with other modalities (generally psychotherapy), paralleling existing guidelines for severe depression in general populations. For milder symptoms in each situation, the panel was less uniform in recommending antidepressants. For the initial treatment of milder symptoms, the panel either gave equal endorsement to other treatment modalities (e.g., nutritional or psychobehavioral approaches in PMDD; hormone replacement in perimenopause) or preferred psychotherapy over medication (in conception, pregnancy, or lactation). In all milder cases, however, antidepressants were recommended as at least second-line options. Among antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as a class were recommended as first-line treatment in all situations. The specific SSRIs that were preferred depended on the particular clinical situation. Tricyclic antidepressants were highly rated alternatives to SSRIs in pregnancy and lactation.

Conclusions: The experts reached a high level of consensus on the appropriateness of including both antidepressant medication, specifically SSRIs, and nonpharmacological modalities in treatment plans for severe depression in 4 key clinical situations unique to women. To evaluate many of the treatment options in this survey, the experts had to extrapolate beyond controlled data in comparing modalities with each other or in combination. Within the limits of expert opinion and with the expectation that future research data will take precedence, these guidelines provide some direction for addressing common clinical dilemmas in women. They can be used to inform clinicians and educate patients regarding the relative merits of a variety of interventions.

Publication types

  • Guideline
  • Practice Guideline

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Complementary Therapies
  • Depression, Postpartum / drug therapy
  • Depression, Postpartum / therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Menopause / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy Complications / therapy*
  • Premenstrual Syndrome / drug therapy
  • Premenstrual Syndrome / therapy*
  • Psychotherapy*
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors