Treatment of depression in women: a summary of the expert consensus guidelines

J Psychiatr Pract. 2001 May;7(3):185-208. doi: 10.1097/00131746-200105000-00006.


Women constitute two-thirds of patients suffering from common depressive disorders, making the treatment of depression in women a substantial public health concern. However, high-quality, empirical data on depressive disorders specific to women are limited, and there are no comprehensive evidence-based practice guidelines on the best treatments for these illnesses. To bridge the gap between research evidence and key clinical decisions, the authors developed a survey of expert opinion concerning treatment of four depressive conditions specific to women: premenstrual dysphoric disorder, depression in pregnancy, postpartum depression in a mother choosing to breast-feed, and depression related to perimenopause/menopause. The survey asked about 858 treatment options in 117 clinical situations and included a broad range of pharmacological, psychosocial, and alternative medicine approaches. The survey was sent to 40 national experts on women's mental health issues, 36 (90%) of whom completed it. The options, scored using a modified version of the RAND Corporation's 9-point scale for rating appropriateness of medical decisions, were assigned one of three categorical rankings-first line/preferred choice, second line/alternate choice, third line/usually inappropriate-based on the 95% confidence interval of each item's mean rating. The expert panel reached consensus (defined as a non-random distribution of scores by chi-square "goodness-of-fit" test) on 76% of the options, with greater consensus in situations involving severe symptoms. Guideline tables indicating preferred treatment strategies were then developed for key clinical situations. The authors summarize the expert consensus methodology they used and then, for each of the four key areas, review the treatment literature and summarize the experts' recommendations and how they relate to the research findings. For women with severe symptoms in each area we asked about, the first-line recommendation was antidepressant medication combined with other modalities (generally psychotherapy). These recommendations parallel existing guidelines for severe depression in general populations. For initial treatment of milder symptoms in each situation, the panel was less uniform in recommending antidepressants, and 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 (during 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) 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. In evaluating many of the treatment options, the experts had to extrapolate beyond controlled data in comparing treatment options 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, and can be used to inform clinicians and educate patients regarding the relative merits of a variety of interventions.