Management of treatment-resistant depression

Gabor I Keitner, Abigail K Mansfield
Psychiatric Clinics of North America 2012, 35 (1): 249-65
Given the limitations of evidence for treatment options that are consistently effective for TRD and the possibility that TRD is in fact a form of depression that has a low probability of resolving, how can clinicians help patients with TRD? Perhaps the most important conceptual shift that needs to take place before treatment can be helpful is to accept TRD as a chronic illness, an illness similar to many others, one that can be effectively managed but that is not, at our present level of knowledge, likely to be cured. An undue focus on remission or even a 50% diminution of symptoms sets unrealistic goals for both patients and therapists and may lead to overtreatment and demoralization. The focus should be less on eliminating depressive symptoms and more on making sense of and learning to function better in spite of them. It is important to acknowledge the difficult nature of the depressive illness, to remove blame from the patient and clinician for not achieving remission, to set realistic expectations, and to help promote better psychosocial functioning even in the face of persisting symptoms. The critical element when implementing such an approach is a judicious balance between maintaining hope for improvement without setting unrealistic expectations. It is important to reemphasize that following a disease management model with acceptance of the reality of a chronic illness is not nihilistic and does not mean the abandonment of hope for improvement. The first step in treating a patient with TRD is to perform a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s past and current treatment history to ensure that evidence-based treatment trials have in fact been undertaken, and if not, such treatment trials should be implemented. If the patient continues to have significant residual symptoms, it is important to determine the impact is of these symptoms on the patient’s quality of life and ability to function. It is also important to evaluate the factors that may be contributing to the persistence of depressive symptoms such as comorbid personality disorders, somatic disorders, substance abuse, and work and interpersonal conflicts. The treatment of patients with TRD needs to move beyond attempts to modify symptoms without taking into consideration and attempting to modify the patient’s personality, coping skills, and social system. Further somatic treatment trials can be undertaken, if desired by the patient and therapist, as a small (5%–15%) percentage of patients may respond and further treatment trials, and this may engender hope. The risk with this approach is that patients and therapists may not work at disease management skills if they believe there may be a resolution of the depression if they could just find the right medication or intervention. Therapists may also feel pressured by patients, families, insurance companies, as well as their own sense of helplessness to escalate treatment in a more and more aggressive manner in an attempt to achieve an elusive remission. A disease management program can provide the therapist and patient with sufficient structure, skills, and goals to encourage ongoing treatment without resorting to unproven measures that may create more side effects and problems. It is particularly important to include the patient’s significant others in the reformulation of the patient’s problem and thereby learn how to manage the illness more effectively. Significant others and family members can be invaluable in providing support for dealing with the difficult process of acquiring a new skill set. Indeed, they spend significantly more time with the patient than does any therapist. Family members are likely to provide this kind of support only if they have been part of the assessment and treatment process. Patients with a wide range of chronic medical illnesses can and do learn to function effectively and to achieve a satisfying quality of life in spite of their illness. There is no reason to think that patients with TRD should not be able to achieve a similar level of illness management, functioning, and quality of life.


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