Childhood onset bipolar disorder can be highly impairing. Treatment usually includes medication, but several types of psychotherapy have also been found to be superior to treatment as usual. These include family focused therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and multifamily psychoeducation groups, including Rainbow therapy.
Family focused therapy, developed by David Miklowitz, consists of psychoeducation about bipolar disorder and the importance of maintaining a stable medication routine. Families are taught to recognize early symptoms of manic and depressive episodes, and how to cope with them. Families also learn communication and problem solving skills that can prevent stressful interactions.
Dialectical behavior therapy was developed by Marsha Linehan, initially for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. It can be useful in bipolar disorder because participants learn how to manage stressors that might otherwise trigger depression or mania. DBT teaches five skills: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and self management.
Multifamily psychoeducation was developed by Mary Fristad. In groups, children and parents learn about mood disorders, including how to manage symptoms, and also work on communication, problem solving, emotion regulation, and decreasing family tension.
Rainbow therapy is a type of multifamily approach also known as child and family-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CFF CBT). It integrates individual cognitive-behavioral therapy with family psychoeducation and mindfulness skills training. In a recent article in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health, Miklowitz reviewed the current research on Rainbow therapy. While the research to date has many limitations, he highlighted some benefits of Rainbow therapy: its flexibility, and its focus on treating parents’ symptoms along with children’s illness.
Bipolar illness affects 4.5% of the US population. According to researcher Kathleen Merikangas, 1.0% have bipolar I disorder, 1.1% have bipolar II disorder, and the remainder have subthreshold symptoms. Mark Frye, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, gave a lecture on antidepressants in bipolar illness at the 2014 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
The newest data from meta-analyses indicate that traditional antidepressants that are effective in unipolar depression are not effective in bipolar depression. Some patient groups, especially those with very early onset depression and mixed depression, are at increased risk of switching into mania and making a suicide attempt while taking antidepressants.
Unipolar depressed patients with a genetic variation that produces a short form of the serotonin transporter (5HT-LPRs/s) are at increased risk for depression in adulthood following a history of childhood adversity, and tend to respond less well to antidepressants. Frye found that 5HT-LPRs/s is weakly associated with switching into mania when antidepressants are given to patients with bipolar depression.
At the same symposium, researcher Mike Gitlin reviewed data on combination therapy, which is rapidly becoming the norm, indicating that in most circumstances, it is superior to monotherapy.
Researcher David Miklowitz reviewed the impressive data on the superiority of most forms of targeted psychotherapy or psychoeducation compared to treatment as usual for bipolar depression. He noted his own finding that Family Focused Therapy (FFT) not only is effective in adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder, but also in reducing illness and dysfunction in those with prodromal disorders (such as depression, cyclothymia, and bipolar not otherwise specified) in situations where there is a family history of bipolar disorder.
Eight components of FFT are:
- Recognition of prodromal symptoms and development of treatment strategies for them.
- Recognition and management of stress and triggers using cognitive restructuring.
- Development of a relapse prevention plan and rehearsal of what to do.
- Regularization of sleep.
- Encouragement of treatment adherence with an eye to a good future.
- Enhancement of emotional self-regulation skills, including cognitive restructuring.
- Improvement of family relationships and communication.
- Education about substance abuse avoidance and treatment for that and other comorbidities.
Many of these are also key components of group psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and interpersonal and social rhythms therapy, and all of these are effective in treating and preventing bipolar depression compared to treatment as usual. It is noteworthy that in the research of Francesc Colom, 90% of patients randomized to treatment as usual relapsed within 24 months, while psychoeducation was highly effective in preventing relapses over the next five years.
This editor (Robert M. Post), the discussant for the symposium, emphasized that the main take-away messages of the speakers were: use more lithium, use more caution and fewer antidepressants in treating bipolar depression, use more combination therapy for acute illness and for maintenance, and definitely use more psychotherapy. Read more
Family focused therapy (FFT), developed by David Miklowitz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been effective in treating early syndromes that sometimes lead to bipolar disorder (including depression, anxiety, or BP-NOS) in children at high risk for bipolar disorder because of a family history that includes bipolar disorder in a first degree relative. There are 8 key ingredients to family focused therapy.
- Consistent monitoring of the illness and developing an early warning system with a plan for responding if early symptoms emerge
- Stress management
- Development of a relapse prevention plan
- Emphasis on sleep hygiene and the importance of regular sleep patterns
- Work on medication adherence
- Development of self-regulatory skills
- Improvement of family relationships
- Avoidance of substances of abuse
In research published since 2008, our Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Post and colleagues in the Bipolar Collaborative Network have compared patients with bipolar disorder in the United States to those in Germany and the Netherlands. Compared to the European sample, patients in the US have more genetic vulnerability to bipolar disorder (by having a parent with bipolar disorder), earlier onsets of their illness, more complicated courses of illness, greater treatment resistance, and more medical comorbidities. Patients in the US also have more psychosocial stress.
The researchers are now turning their attention to these psychosocial vulnerabilities, and in a new paper that will be published in Psychiatry Research (late in 2013 or early in 2014), the authors show that patients in the US had more stressors both in childhood and just prior to the onset of their illness. Childhood stressors analyzed in the study were verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Stressors in adulthood included indicators of a lack of social support, troubles with finances or employment, lack of access to health care, and medical comorbidities.
The stressors patients experienced just prior to their most recent episode of bipolar illness were related to: stressors in childhood, an earlier age of illness onset, anxiety and substance abuse comorbidity, lower income, both parents having an affective illness such as depression, and feeling more stigma.
The new research suggests that for patients with bipolar disorder in the US, adverse life events in childhood and later in life are more prevalent than they are for patients in the Netherlands or Germany. Earlier and more effective approaches to these stressors, such as the Family-Focused Therapy developed by David Miklowitz and Kiki Chang, could potentially slow the onset or progression of bipolar illness in this country.
Family Environment, Cognitive Functioning, and Quality of Life Among Depressed Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Arman Danielyan presented a poster on psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics of youth in a depressive phase of bipolar disorder. These adolescents had lower scores on a variety of measures.
Adolescents with bipolar depression had significantly lower scores on 7 of 10 family environment scales measuring the quality of family interaction, communication, and emotional tone. They also exhibited significant impairment in cognitive function, particularly executive functioning, and all domains of psychosocial health were substantially lower than US normative data.
The authors concluded that bipolar depression affects multiple domains of adolescents’ lives including their cognitive, psychosocial, and family functioning. This suggests that the involvement of the whole family in the treatment process would be beneficial.
The impaired cognitive functioning these young people face is associated with lower quality of life, and ways of addressing this better are clearly needed.
Editor’s Note: In a previous BNN we reported on the efficacy of Family Focused Therapy (FFT), which was pioneered by David Miklowitz. This therapy is effective for adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder and for adolescents who are at high risk for the disorder because of two factors: having a parent with the disorder and having preliminary symptoms of bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS), depression, or an anxiety disorder. Kiki Chang, a respected authority on child and adolescent psychiatry, recommends FFT for children and adolescents with bipolar disorder and those at high risk for it.