Background: Bipolar disorder (BD) is considered to have a significantly negative impact on functioning and prognosis is considered poor. Current treatments are modestly effective and predominantly focus on reducing extreme mood fluctuations and symptoms, yet less is known about what patients themselves describe as distressing. Therefore we aimed to assess this through a systematic review.
Methods: A comprehensive literature search was conducted in four major bibliographic databases in August 2017, updated in July 2018. Qualitative studies exploring BD were included if they contained themes related to distress. First person accounts from people with BD discussing what they experience as distressing were extracted and synthesised using thematic synthesis. Author interpretations were also extracted to support the synthesis.
Results: Twenty-four studies were included. Five main analytical themes were developed: 1) diagnosis, 2) loss, 3) uncertainty, 4) threat and 5) relationships. Two further crosscutting themes were identified as 1) stigma and 2) fear of relapse. Implications for interventions to focus on these causes of distress also emerged.
Limitations: The included studies did not adequately examine the authors’ potential own biases and influences within their interpretations of the data. One author predominantly undertook data extraction and coding for the current review, although research team discussions led to an agreed consensus on themes.
Conclusions: This was the first qualitative study to specifically explore distress in BD. The meta-synthesis highlights important areas that people with BD experience as distressing. Adaptations to current interventions, to focus on what people find distressing could seek to improve treatment outcomes.