Q. Can medication help keep people with bipolar disorder from hurting themselves?
A. Yes. Self-harm is common among people with bipolar disorder, and those who are prescribed lithium may be less likely to hurt themselves or suffer an unintentional injury, such as a fall or a car accident, than those who take other commonly used mood-stabilizing medications.
In a study that appeared in JAMA Psychiatry in May 2016, researchers analyzed a database of health records to determine the rate of self-harm, unintentional injuries, and suicide among 6,671 people age 16 and older with bipolar disorder. All participants had been prescribed one of four mood-stabilizing medications.
Approximately 32 percent were taking lithium, 25 percent were taking valproate, 22 percent were taking olanzapine, and about 21 percent were taking quetiapine. The length of time they took their prescribed medication ranged from 28 days to about 17 years.
The rates of nonfatal self-harm and unintentional injuries were lower in people who took lithium compared with those who were taking any of the other medications. Because there were very few suicides, researchers were not able determine if any of the medications lowered this risk compared with the others.
Jeff Bauer is a healthcare journalist with expertise in psychiatry. He has served as editor of Current Psychiatry, a leading peer-reviewed clinical journal for psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners, and as educational content director for the U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress, the nation’s leading independent mental health continuing education conference.