IDD-MH Prescriber Guidelines

IDD-MH Prescriber Guidelines

Funded by the WITH Foundation

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Jennifer McLaren, MD

This section provides a brief guide to Bipolar Disorder in individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).


The core features of Bipolar Disorder are manic or hypomanic episodes, depressive episodes, and a marked change from an individual’s baseline. The severity of an individual’s intellectual disability will influence the presentation of symptoms for Bipolar Disorder. Individuals with mild to moderate intellectual disability may report their internal feelings and observations of their own behavior. Individuals with a more significant intellectual impairment may not be able to verbalize their feelings and observations. For all individuals, observation of overall presentation and vegetative function along with collateral information are key. The prevalence of Bipolar Disorder is lower than anxiety and depressive disorders in this population and requires clear knowledge of the presentation is required in order to prescribe effectively.

The diagnosis of Bipolar and Related Disorders requires meeting current diagnostic criteria for one of the following: Bipolar I Disorder, Bipolar II Disorder, Cyclothymic Disorder, Substance/Medication-Induced Bipolar and Related Disorder, Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders, and Bipolar and Related Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition.


Table 1. Key Components in Assessing Bipolar and Related Disorders in Individuals with ID and ASD

Comprehensive history with collateral information, including behavioral observations from caregivers, residential staff, day staff, etc.

  • Good understanding of individual’s baseline functioning and change from baseline.
    • What does the individual look like when they are doing well?
    • When did they last appear that way?
  • Symptoms of mania or hypomania include a persistently elevated, expansive or irritable mood with the following symptoms
    • Mania: symptoms lasting at least 1 week and causes functional impairment
    • Hypomania: lasting 4 consecutive days
      • 3 or more of the following symptoms or 4 or more if the mood is irritable
      • 2 or more if limited expressive language skills or 3 or more if mood is irritable
    • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
    • Decreased need for sleep
    • More talkative or pressure to keep talking
    • Flight of ideas or racing thoughts
    • Distractibility
    • Increase in goal directed activity
    • Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities
  • Timeline and Severity
    • When did the patient begin having symptoms?
    • On a scale of 0-10, how severe are the symptoms with 10 being the worst?
    • Previous episodes of mania and depression and response to treatment
  • Assess for psychosocial stressors and abuse
  • Comorbid substance use/abuse/dependence
  • Family history of mental health issues and suicide attempts or completions

Physical examination: Assess for illnesses that can be associated with Bipolar Disorder (e.g., Hyperthyroidism, Lupus, Epilepsy, Stroke)

Review individual’s medication list. Assess if medications are causing/contributing to mania/hypomania.

  • Ask about complementary and alternative medications.
  • Some classes of medication can cause mania (e.g., corticosteroids, antidepressants, stimulants, baclofen, bromide, bromocriptine, captopril, cimetidine, cyclosporine, disulfiram, hydralazine, isoniazid, levodopa, metrizamide, procarbazine, procyclidine)

Mental Status Examination: Assess suicidality and homicidality, psychotic symptoms, catatonic symptoms, and future orientation.

 Labs to consider: Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), complete blood count (CBC), liver function tests (LFTs), renal function tests, and urine drug screen

There is a lack of research on psychopharmacologic treatments for individuals with Bipolar Disorder and IDD. The psychotropic medications to treat Bipolar Disorder in typically developing individuals are utilized for individuals with IDD.

Treatment of Mania

It is important to provide psychoeducation about the chronicity and course of Bipolar Disorder, treatment, and the importance of adherence to treatment. Manic and hypomanic episodes are treated with the same psychotropic medication. A variety of medication shows comparable efficacy in treating mania and are considered first line medications including lithium, quetiapine, divalproex, asenapine, aripiprazole, paliperidone, risperidone and cariprazine. Among these medications, lithium, valproate, aripiprazole, risperidone and quetiapine have a favorable safety and tolerability profile and a stronger evidence base in patients with ID and ASD. These medications should be considered first to treat mania in individuals with ID and ASD. Table 2 shows how to choose medication to treat mania.

Table 2. Which medication to choose?

  The choice between lithium and valproate, and the choice of the antipsychotic should be based upon the following:

  • Individual’s past response to medications
  • Past response to medications of family members with Bipolar Disorder
  • Symptoms
  • Comorbid general medical illnesses
    • If patient has epilepsy and is treated with valproate for their epilepsy, then optimize the dose of valproate to treat mania. Valproate’s therapeutic blood level for epilepsy is lower than for mania.
    • Liver disease: avoid valproate
    • Renal disease: avoid lithium
    • Obesity: avoid olanzapine
  • Drug-drug interactions
  • Patient preference
  • Cost

Response to anti-manic agents is typically seen in 1-2 weeks. If manic symptoms are not controlled, then consider dosing optimization and medication adherence. If the response to medications remains suboptimal once these factors are optimized, then a re-evaluation of the diagnosis should be considered. If the diagnosis of mania remains consistent and an individual does not respond to a first line agent, substitute a different first line agent before preceding to second line agents. The second line agents include olanzapine, carbamazepine, haloperidol, lithium plus valproate, olanzapine plus valproate or lithium, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Figure 1 illustrates an algorithm for treatment of mild to moderate mania in individuals with IDD.

Treatment of Depression

Consider Positive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help the individual learn coping strategies to manage depression. First line psychotropic medications to treat depression in Bipolar Disorder include the following: quetiapine, lithium, lamictal, lurasidone, or lurasidone with lithium or divalproex. Second line agents include the following: Divalproex, SSRI or bupropion, ECT, cariprazine, and olanzapine-fluoxetine. Maintenance treatment is important in Bipolar Disorder to prevent future episodes of mania and depression.

Figure 1. Consensus treatment psychotropic algorithm – Manic Episode Mild-Moderate Severity

a graphic representing the Consensus treatment psychotropic algorithm for Manic Episode with Mild to Moderate Severity

* Step 1 agents: lithium, valproate, aripiprazole, risperidone, and quetiapine
^Combination treatment if symptoms becoming more severe: lithium or valproate plus quetiapine, aripiprazole or risperidone
#Second line agents: olanzapine, carbamazepine, ziprasidone, haloperidol, lithium plus valproate, olanzapine plus valproate or lithium, and ECT

Severe Mania

For patients with severe mania, consider initial treatment with lithium plus an antipsychotic or valproate plus an antipsychotic (4, 5, 12-14).  A severe manic episode that does not respond to one medication combination should be treated with a second medication combination such as switching the mood stabilizer: lithium to valproate or vice versa (4, 5).  If the individual fails to respond after 1-3 weeks of treatment then switch the antipsychotic to another antipsychotic (4, 5).  After 1-3 weeks if no response then switch to a different antipsychotic or try ECT (4, 5, 15).  ECT should only be utilized when symptoms are severe, refractory to medication treatment or due to intolerable side effects from medications (16).  Figure 2 illustrates an algorithm for treatment of severe mania in individuals with ID or ASD.

Figure 2. Consensus treatment psychotropic algorithm – Severe Manic Episode


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