Antidepressants in bipolar disorder: the case for caution

Bipolar Disord. 2003 Dec;5(6):421-33. doi: 10.1046/j.1399-5618.2003.00074.x.


The 2002 American Psychiatric Association (APA) guidelines for the treatment of bipolar disorder recommended more conservative use of antidepressants. This change in comparison with previous APA guidelines has been criticized, especially from some groups in Europe. The Munich group in particular has published a critique of assumptions underlying the conservative recommendations of the recent APA treatment guidelines. In this paper, we re-examine the argument put forward by the Munich group, and we demonstrate that indeed, conceptually and empirically, there is a strong rationale for a cautious approach to antidepressant use in bipolar disorder, consistent with, and perhaps even more strongly than, the APA guidelines. This rationale is based on support for the following four propositions: (i) The risk of antidepressant induced mood-cycling is high, (ii) Antidepressants have not been shown to definitively prevent completed suicides and reduce mortality, whereas lithium has, (iii) Antidepressants have not been shown to be more effective than mood stabilizers in acute bipolar depression and have been shown to be less effective than mood stabilizers in preventing depressive relapse in bipolar disorder and (iv) Mood stabilizers, especially lithium and lamotrigine, have been shown to be effective in acute and prophylactic treatment of bipolar depressive episodes. We therefore draw three conclusions from this interpretation of the evidence: (i) There are significant risks of mania and long-term worsening of bipolar illness with antidepressants, (ii) Antidepressants should generally be reserved for severe cases of acute bipolar depression and not routinely used in mild to moderate cases and (iii) Antidepressants should be discontinued after recovery from the depressive episode, and maintained only in those who repeatedly relapse after antidepressant discontinuation (a minority we judge to represent only about 15-20% of bipolar depressed patients).

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect / drug effects
  • Antidepressive Agents / adverse effects*
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antimanic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bipolar Disorder / chemically induced
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Bipolar Disorder / physiopathology
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Lithium Carbonate / therapeutic use
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk
  • Secondary Prevention
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Antimanic Agents
  • Lithium Carbonate