The Concept of Recovery in Major Depression
By Carlotta Belaise, PhD and
Giovanni A. Fava, MD |
June 1, 2008
A new proposal
Appraisal of the literature on residual symptoms in major depression entails several conceptual implications. First, current basic pathophysiological models of pathogenesis in depression neglect intermediate phenomenological steps in the balance between health and disease. A prodromal phase can be described in most instances of depression, and only a few patients are completely asymptomatic after treatment.10 Similarly, drug mechanisms that may be operational in the initial phase of treatment can change during long-term treatment and according to the stages of illness.40
Second, standard treatment of depression seems to neglect a fundamental aspect of the disorder concerning residual symptoms. Monotherapy, for example, is likely to be insufficient in most cases. Different treatments are generally compared using the rate of response they yield instead of the amount of residual symptoms. A recent study on the amount of residual symptoms after treatment with fluoxetine(Drug information on fluoxetine) or reboxetine(Drug information on reboxetine) is a valuable exception.17 Such assessment may lead to a reevaluation of tricyclic antidepressants.10 Optimal combinations of treatment strategies need to be devised.
Third, randomized controlled trials are generally not intended to answer questions about the treatment of individual patients.41 Consequently, we should accept the possibility that a treatment may determine abatement of symptoms in some patients, leave substantial residual symptoms in others, yield an unsatisfactory response in others, and provide no benefit or even cause harm in a few. The types of residual symptoms vary widely from patient to patient and need to be assessed individually.33
Fourth, the concept of mental health should be expanded. Ryff and Singer42 remarked that historically, mental health research is dramatically weighted on the side of psychological dysfunction and that health is equated with the absence of illness rather than the presence of wellness. They suggest that the absence of well-being creates conditions of vulnerability to possible future adversities and that the route to recovery lies not exclusively in alleviating the negative but in engendering the positive.
In a survey on factors identified by depressed outpatients as important in determining remission, the most frequently mentioned were features of positive mental health, such as optimism, self-confidence, and a return to the usual level of functioning as well as growth, integration, autonomy, perception of reality, and environmental mastery.43,44 Such criteria were refined and expanded in the multidimensional model of psychological well-being by Ryff,45 which was applied in a variety of clinical settings.46 The psychological dimensions may be instrumental in assessing both the process and the definition of recovery. Table 2 presents modified dimensions of psychological well-being based on the Ryff model.
Fava and colleagues28 have recently suggested a new set of criteria for defining recovery that encompass psychological well-being. The fact that a patient no longer meets syndromal criteria is insufficient. Not all symptoms are equally important.47-49 For instance, persistence of depressed mood is different from lack of concentration in an improved depressed patient.
Often, currently used scales for assessing treatment outcome, such as the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D), are inadequate for assessing the wide spectrum of residual symptoms.10 As a result, reliance on a cut-off point of a rating scale such as the HAM-D for establishing recovery may be misleading. The current conceptual model is, in fact, psychometric: severity is determined by the number of symptoms only, without enough attention being paid to their intensity, quality, or interference with everyday life.50 This means that we can diagnose a major depressive disorder if the patient meets 5 of the specific symptoms even though the symptoms can be mild and functioning may not be impaired. On the other hand, this may not be the case in a patient who presents with symptoms such as depressed mood and hopelessness, severe anhedonia, and fatigue, all of which have a devastating impact on quality of life.
Greater end-point severity appears to be related to greater baseline severity.51 Moreover, reference to well-being may be optional for defining remission, but it appears to be unavoidable for recovery. Frank and associates1 emphasized the connection between the declaration of recovery and the possibility that treatment can be discontinued or prolonged only for preventive purposes. The symptomatic state of patients who are drug-free could be equated, in this case, with that of patients who receive continuation therapy. As a result, while the proposed criteria for full remission are amenable to improvement and validation, those concerned with recovery seem to need a multidimensional redefinition that reflects the clinician's orientation and prognosis, aside from a symptomatic assessment.1
In addition, the role of the patient in engendering his or her recovery by appropriate lifestyle, and by behavioral and cognitive strategies should be emphasized. There is a large body of evidence— reviewed in this article and supported by the poor outcome of patients in long-term studies—that clinicians who treat patients with unipolar depression often have partial therapeutic targets, neglect residual symptoms, and equate therapeutic response with full remission.
It is hoped that more stringent criteria for recovery, endorsement of a longitudinal appraisal of affective disturbances, and more active involvement of the patient in the process of recovery may result in therapeutic efforts that yield more lasting relief.
Earn CME Credit
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