Interventions for helping people recognise early signs of recurrence in bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder (BPD), or manic-depressive psychosis, is a common and severe mental illness, with a lifetime prevalence of 1-2%. BPD is characterised by two types of recurrence, mania and depression. High rates of recurrence and associated adverse consequences occur in spite of a range of effective treatments. Early warning signs (EWS) interventions, targeted at improving the recognition and self-management of manic and depressive symptoms, are intended to train people with recurrent bipolar affective disorder to recognise early warning signs of recurrence and to avert adverse outcomes. This review demonstrated that these interventions, in addition to treatment as usual (TAU), including medication and regular appointments with health professionals, have benefits on time to recurrence and hospitalisation. Compared with TAU only, EWS interventions also resulted in improved functioning at eighteen months, although these data were sparse and the findings should be interpreted with caution. EWS interventions did not appear to have any effect on depressive or manic symptoms, although again, these findings were based on small numbers of potentially selected patients in remission. It should be noted that EWS was used along with other psychological interventions, and it is not entirely clear what proportion of the beneficial effect was due to the EWS intervention alone.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review shows a beneficial effect of EWS in time to recurrence, percentage of people hospitalised and functioning in people with bipolar disorder. However, the absence of data on the primary outcome measure in so many included studies is a source of concern and a potential source of bias. Mental health services should consider routinely providing EWS interventions to adults with bipolar disorder, as they appear to reduce hospitalisation and therefore may be cost-effective.

Read the full abstract...

Recurrence rates for bipolar disorder are high despite effective treatments with mood stabiliser drugs. Self-help treatments and psychological treatments that teach patients to recognise and manage early warning symptoms and signs (EWS) of impending manic or depressive episodes are popular with patients. The main aim of such interventions is to intervene early and prevent bipolar episodes, thereby increasing the time to the next recurrence and preventing hospitalisation.


To compare the effectiveness of an EWS intervention plus treatment as usual (TAU ) versus TAU (involving and not involving a psychological therapy) on time to manic, depressive and all bipolar episodes (the primary outcome), hospitalisation, functioning, depressive and manic symptoms.

Search strategy: 

Relevant studies identified by searching Cochrane Collaboration Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis Controlled Trials Registers (CCDANCTR-Studies and CCDANCTR-References - searched on 20/10/2005), supplemented with hand searching the journal Bipolar Disorders, searching the UK National Research Register, checking reference lists of included studies and contacting authors.

Selection criteria: 

Only randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were included. Participants were adults with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on standardised psychiatric criteria.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two reviewers independently rated trials for inclusion. Data were extracted from included trials by reviewers using a data extraction sheet. Authors of all the included studies were contacted for any additional information required. Time to recurrence data was summarised as log hazard ratios, dichotomous data as relative risk and continuous data as weighted mean difference, using random effects models to calculate effect size only when there was heterogeneity in the data.

Main results: 

Eleven RCTs were identified, but only six provided primary outcome data. All six RCTs were of high quality. Time to first recurrence of any type (RE, hazards ratio 0.57, 95% CI 0.39 to 0.82), time to manic/hypomanic episode, time to depressive episode, and percentage of people hospitalised and functioning favoured the intervention group. Neither depressive nor hypomanic symptoms differed between intervention and control groups.

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