Family Members’ Mental Illness Challenges Bipolar Treatment

New research suggests medical care for individuals with bipolar disorder can be more challenging if multiple family members have a mental disorder. In these situations, individuals with bipolar may need more medicine and more care.

However, if individuals receive an intensive course of treatment, the outcome is similar as for patients who do not have a family history of severe mental disorders.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental disorder affecting nearly 3 percent of adults in the U.S. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).

In the new research, investigators from Denmark followed previous studies that discovered that patients with bipolar disorder may have many family members who also suffer from severe mental disorders.

Scientists from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital Psychiatry, in collaboration with a number of American hospitals led by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University in Boston, discovered care for an individual with bipolar becomes more complicated if the individual has a parent or sibling with a severe mental disorder.

Researcher discovered the association with family mental illness can complicate the way an individual with bipolar progresses over the course of the illness. Individuals are apt to have more depressive and manic episodes and experience more suicide attempts during their lifetime. They also require a more intensive course of treatment with additional medicine.

“The positive finding is that this extra effort in relation to treatment resulted in patients who both had and didn’t have close relatives with severe mental disorders responding equally well to the treatment,” said researcher Dr. Ole Köhler-Forsberg from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital – Psychiatry.

The findings appear in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

To begin the study, researcher asked patients with bipolar disorder to self-report the number of first-degree relatives with severe mental disorders. Of the participants, 85 percent had at least one.

“We also found that a higher number of family relatives with severe mental disorders was linked to a lower level of education, lower income and earlier debut of the disorder. This suggests that mental disorders in the family also affect the lives of the patients in a very broad and general sense which goes beyond the disorder itself,” said Köhler-Forsberg.

The results are based on two large American randomized controlled trials with a total of 757 participants and eleven hospitals. The study is the first of its kind to include such a large group of patients and also to follow these patients over 24 weeks while they were treated with one of four different treatments.

“Future studies could take a closer look at how mental disorders in the family affect the patient, but also at the entire family and the lives of relatives, and whether efforts to help e.g. the children of people with mental disorders should begin earlier,” Köhler-Forsberg said.

Source: Aarhus University

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