Why Bipolar Patients Use Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Depression

April 17, 2015
Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP

Many patients with depressive disorders self-treat with complementary and alternative medicine.

Many patients with depressive disorders self-treat with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In fact, depression is strongly associated with greater odds of a patient employing CAM.

CAM’s most ardent followers will quickly suggest kava, a potential hepatotoxin, as a remedy for anxiety symptoms and St John’s wort or omega-3 fatty acids for mild-to-moderate depression.

In a review of CAM for depressive disorders, which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers studied patients diagnosed with bipolar depression and a range of other mental illnesses to determine CAM users’ characteristics, motivation, decision-making, and communication with health care providers.

The researchers observed a high level of CAM use across both patients who self-diagnosed with depression and those who were formally diagnosed with depressive disorders. Family and friends were more likely to influence patients to try CAM than health care providers.

Between 10% and 30% of patients with depression used CAM. Significantly more bipolar patients used CAM, with 20% to 50% indicating they self-medicated. Among those, many used prescription medications concurrently.

Within the study population, it was not unusual for patients to employ CAM concurrently with prescription medicines. In fact, use of CAM alone for depressive symptoms was rare.

Most CAM users were motivated by lack of symptom relief using prescription medication and therapy alone. They reported enduring functional impairment, as well.

Since CAM use increased alongside illness severity and the presence of comorbidities, dissatisfaction with prescription medicine may propel patients toward CAM.

These findings suggest bipolar patients using CAM have a tendency to consider it as a lifestyle modification rather than actual treatment. Health care providers should ask about CAM use, and be aware that these products have drug interactions and side effects.