One of the most challenging clinical topics in psychiatry is the diagnosis and treatment of bipolar depression. The term mood stabilizer is frequently employed in the treatment of the hospitalized bipolar patient, although clinicians do not universally agree on a consensus definition of this term. Most clinicians would agree that a mood stabilizer refers to a medication that is effective for the acute treatment of manic, mixed, hypomanic, or depressive episodes. Many experts agree that such treatment should offer efficacy against mania, should not worsen depression, and preferably should treat depression as well. In addition, the acute effectiveness in stabilization should not be at the expense of inducing alternate mood symptoms or switching the patient into the alternate phase of illness. From a maintenance standpoint, a mood stabilizer should also prevent against future relapse or recurrence of manic, mixed, hypomanic, or depressive symptoms or episodes (Slide 1).
In addition to use of mood stabilizers, there are other issues surrounding treatment of the hospitalized patient with bipolar depression, including the commonly comorbid issue of substance abuse. Hazardous drinking may more commonly occur in bipolar depression or depressive phase of illness, representing a more complex clinical picture. To facilitate understanding of this complex disorder and its appropriate treatment, this discussion centers around the case of a major depressive episode in a patient with a past history of of mania (ie, bipolar I depression or bipolar depression).