Importance: Although symptoms of irritability or anger are not central to the diagnosis of unipolar major depressive episodes (MDEs), these symptoms have been found, in cross-sectional studies, to be highly prevalent and associated with increased comorbidity and depressive illness burden.
Objective: To determine the prevalence of overtly expressed irritability/anger and its effect on intake presentation and the long-term course of illness.
Design: A prospective, naturalistic investigation of patients with unipolar MDEs, studied systematically at intake and during up to 31 years of follow-up.
Setting: Five US academic medical centers.
Participants: Patients entered the National Institute of Mental Health Collaborative Depression Study during an MDE in 1978, 1979, 1980, or 1981. Patients with unipolar MDE at intake (n = 536) were divided into those with and those without current comorbid overtly expressed irritability/anger.
Exposure: In this observational, longitudinal study, patients received treatment that was recorded but not controlled.
Main outcomes and measures: Groups were compared on illness severity and chronicity, psychosocial impairment, quality of life, suicidal behavior, lifetime comorbid diagnoses, impulse control, and measures associated with bipolarity.
Results: Overt irritability/anger was present in 292 of 536 participants with a unipolar MDE at study intake (54.5%). It was associated with significantly increased depressive severity, longer duration of the index MDE, poorer impulse control, a more chronic and severe long-term course of illness, higher rates of lifetime comorbid substance abuse and anxiety disorder, more antisocial personality disorders, greater psychosocial impairment before intake and during follow-up, reduced life satisfaction, and a higher rate of bipolar II disorder in relatives. No association was found with increased suicidal ideation or behavior. Results were not explained by comorbidity or other manic spectrum symptoms.
Conclusions and relevance: This study extends results of cross-sectional investigations and indicates that irritability/anger during MDEs is a highly prevalent clinical marker of a more severe, chronic, and complex depressive illness. Findings have important implications for assessment and treatment.