Risk of Suicide in People with Bipolar Disorder: Lowest with Lithium, Highest with Antidepressants

January 7, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments 

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Researcher Markku Lähteenvuo and colleagues reported in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in early 2018 that long-acting injectable antipsychotics and lithium were best at preventing re-hospitalization in 18,018 bipolar patients in Finland who received an average of more than 7 years of follow up. Lähteenvuo and colleagues have now gone on to analyze suicide data from the same cohort of patients with bipolar disorder, and report that those taking lithium had the lowest rate of suicide, while those taking valproate had the next lowest suicide rate. Those patients with bipolar disorder who were treated with antidepressants had the greatest suicide rate. The suicide rate was particularly high for those once-hospitalized patients taking the MAO inhibitor antidepressant meclobemide, which is not approved for use in the US. Increased rates of suicide were also seen with use of sedatives and benzodiazepines.

Editor’s Note: Evidence continues to mount that lithium should be the definitive first line therapy in bipolar disorder for a multitude of reasons (as this editor Robert M. Post reviewed in an open-access article in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2017). Still, lithium is not often prescribed for people with bipolar disorder in the US, and this does not seem to be in these patients’ best interests.

Use of antidepressants in bipolar disorder has remained controversial, but it is common in clinical practice despite a lack of evidence that it is effective, and the presence of some evidence that it is actually harmful. Antidepressant use in a person with bipolar disorder may cause switching into mania, cycle acceleration, dysphoria induction, and even suicide.

Clinicians should take these data seriously and overcome the impulse (leftover from treating unipolar depression) to use unimodal antidepressants as first line or adjunctive therapy for bipolar depression. Antidepressants are only effective in the long term in about 15% of patients with bipolar depression, and now it appears antidepressant use also carries an additional risk of suicide.


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