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Psychological therapies for bipolar disorder: addressing some misunderstandings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

Steven H. Jones
Clinical Psychology, Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University, UK, email:
Fiona Lobban
Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University
Anne Cooke
Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University
Warren Mansell
Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University
Kim Wright
Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University
Joanne Hemmingfield
Spectrum Centre for Mental Research, Lancaster University
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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright © Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2011

We would like to reply to the letter published in your journal by Gupta & Brown, Reference Gupta and Brown1 concerning a recent British Psychological Society report on understanding bipolar disorder. 2 As authors of that report, we were pleased that it has generated debate. In the main, responses from psychiatric and other clinical colleagues have been overwhelmingly positive: MDF The Bipolar Organisation referred to the report as ‘ground-breaking’ Reference Syrett3 and Stephen Fry's tweet on the report led to 2000 downloads in one day.

We thank Drs Gupta and Brown for their interest in this report, and for giving their opinion. However, they make some criticisms that we feel are based on misunderstandings, and we would like to correct these. In contrast to the view of Gupta & Brown, the report does not present an antipsychiatry position: its explicit purpose is to provide a psychological perspective to supplement the existing literature, which is predominantly based on a biological perspective. The report does discuss the limitations of formal mental health diagnoses, but recognition of these limitations is not discipline specific. In our experience, individuals who have been told they have bipolar disorder are rarely informed about the explanatory and predictive limitations of this diagnosis. By outlining these in our report, we aim to raise awareness that the construct of diagnosis is a subject of debate, and therefore that it may be legitimate to explore alternative means of understanding experiences that are classified in this way. Gupta & Brown propose that diagnoses in mental health are based on specific scientific data about aetiology. We would contest this. Indeed, this is even explicitly spelled out in DSM-IV-TR, 4 which states that recent versions of the DSM ‘attempt to be neutral with respect to theories of aetiology’ (p. xxvi). The authors claim that we do not offer an alternative to diagnostic systems. This is not the case with regard to either the descriptive or the explanatory function of diagnoses. As regards the former, we propose that normal English is sufficient (for example, the report uses ‘a tendency to experience extremes of mood’) and avoids some of the more unhelpful side-effects of psychiatric diagnosis such as stigma. As regards the latter, we propose that this is in any case limited and that individualised multifactorial formulation, where professional and service user work together to identify the various factors contributing to the problem, offers a more useful approach.

We do not claim that bipolar disorder is a lifestyle choice and we do not argue that psychological interventions alone are a preferred solution for all individuals with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. We do, however, argue (consistent with NICE guidelines 5 ) that more people should have access to psychological interventions and that these can improve outcome for some people. Systematic reviews support the benefits of structured psychological approaches, particularly in relation to reduction of relapse risk. Reference Beynon, Soares-Weiser, Woolacott, Duffy and Geddes6,Reference Scott, Colom and Vieta7 We do not argue against the use of medication treatments, but we do discuss the fact that they are not necessarily helpful for everyone and that choice in relation to this, as well as other forms of treatment, is an important consideration. We accept that the evidence for psychological interventions is based mainly on participants who are currently receiving medication as well. This could mean that the sole ingredient offered by psychological interventions is an increase in adherence, but this is no more proven than other possible explanations. Indeed, Lam and colleagues Reference Lam, Watkins, Hayward, Bright, Wright and Kerr8,Reference Lam, Hayward, Watkins, Wright and Sham9 found significant benefits of cognitive-behavioural therapy for bipolar disorder after controlling for medication adherence. Gupta & Brown are right to point out that there are no drug-free studies of psychological interventions in bipolar disorder. Such studies prove an enormous challenge, given the present readiness to prescribe. However, it is encouraging that psychological therapies appear to be superior to medication in the long term for a range of other psychiatric disorders, including unipolar depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. Reference Butler, Chapman, Forman and Beck10,Reference Barlow, Gorman, Shear and Woods11 Nevertheless, our approach sees a key role for medication in services, particularly in situations of acute risk, and for clients for whom the benefits are clear. The authors correctly note that we omitted reference to trials by Scott et al Reference Scott, Paykel, Morriss, Bentall, Kinderman and Johnson12 (which had negative results) and Miklowitz et al Reference Miklowitz, Otto, Frank, Reilly-Harrington, Kogan and Sachs13 (which had positive results). This we will address when the report is updated, but it does not significantly change the conclusions of the report (nor did it affect the NICE guideline recommendations on psychological therapy 5 ). The authors suggest that the evidence informing the report is limited. We disagree. In addition to the trials and experimental research that is covered, we provide extensive reports from large numbers of people with bipolar disorder, reporting on how they have learned to cope with their mood swings. We regard such evidence as primary rather than secondary in the pursuit of a scientific understanding of emotion regulation and how it becomes a problem for many people, just as early psychiatrists utilised a phenomenological stance in building their initial categorisations of mental illness. We welcome the opening of a debate on these issues and look forward to further constructive discussions.


1 Gupta, S, Brown, J. Psychological therapies for bipolar disorder – adjunct not alternative to pharmacological treatments. Psychiatrist 2011; 35: 196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
2 British Psychological Society. Understanding Bipolar Disorder – Why Some People Experience Extreme Mood Swings and What Can Help. British Psychological Society, 2010.Google Scholar
3 Syrett, M. A balanced approach to bipolar. Pendulum 2010; 26: 2.Google Scholar
4 American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edn, text revn) (DSM-IV-TR). APA, 2000.Google Scholar
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13 Miklowitz, DJ, Otto, MW, Frank, E, Reilly-Harrington, NA, Kogan, JN, Sachs, GS, et al. Intensive psychosocial intervention enhances functioning in patients with bipolar depression: results from a 9-month randomized controlled trial. Am J Psychiatry 2007; 164: 1340–7.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
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