Psychotherapy for bipolar depression: a phase-specific treatment strategy?


Corresponding author: Holly A Swartz, MD, Department of Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, 3811 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA. Tel: +1 412-624-2211; fax: +1 412-624-5734; e-mail:


Objectives: The depressive phase of bipolar disorder is particularly difficult to treat. Pharmacologic strategies for bipolar depression are often inadequate. We therefore review the literature on the role of psychotherapy as an adjunct to medication in the treatment of bipolar depression.

Methods: With one exception, there are no descriptions of psychotherapies employed specifically for the treatment of bipolar depression. We therefore reviewed published reports of psychotherapy for bipolar disorder in general and extracted from these reports relevant data or impressions about the specific effects of the therapies on the depressive phase of the disorder.

Results: Described psychosocial approaches to bipolar disorder include psychoeducation, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy. Only cognitive-behavioral therapy has been tested in a pilot study for the treatment of bipolar depression specifically. Results from randomized controlled trials of family therapy and interpersonal and social rhythm therapy suggest that these treatments may be more efficacious in the treatment and prevention of depression relative to mania.

Conclusions: A limited number of well-designed studies and preponderance of case reports limit definitive conclusions about the role of psychotherapy in the treatment of bipolar depression. However, converging reports suggest that cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and interpersonal and social rhythm therapy may be particularly useful for bipolar depression. We propose a novel approach to the treatment of bipolar disorder that includes the use of phase-specific sequenced psychotherapies delivered in variable patterns and linked to fluctuating mood states.