What patients with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder perceive as adverse life events precipitating a current major depressive episode

Robyn Anne van Schoor, Pierre M Joubert


Background. Adverse life events (ALEs) as precipitants of a major depressive episode (MDE) have been the subject of many studies. These studies indicate an increase in ALEs in the 6 months preceding an MDE.

Objectives. The study examined what participants, suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) or bipolar disorder (BD), perceived as the precipitating ALE of a current MDE. The severity and categories of ALEs were compared between these two patient groups.

Methods. Consenting, adult inpatients were sourced from Weskoppies Hospital, Steve Biko Academic Hospital, Tshwane District Hospital, Denmar Psychiatric Hospital and Vista Clinic in the Pretoria area. A semi-structured questionnaire was used to obtain demographic data and the diagnosis. Information regarding the course of the disorder, including the number of previous MDEs and the age at which the first MDE occurred, was also obtained. The perceived precipitating ALE was detailed for each participant. A severity value referred to as a Life Change Unit Score (LCU score), based on the Recent Life Changes Questionnaire (RLCQ) by Miller and Rahe, was then assigned to each participant’s perceived precipitant.

Results. Of the 64 participants, 12.7 % were experiencing a first MDE. In those participants who had experienced prior episodes the average number (standard deviation (SD)) of previous episodes was 3.86 (2.46). The mean approximate age (SD) at first onset of an MDE was 24.81 (10.9) years. The BD group had significantly more previous MDEs than the MDD group. Although the average LCU scores were higher in the BD group than the MDD group this did not reach statistical significance. Therefore, this study could not find a difference in the severity of the perceived precipitants between the BD group and MDD group. However, when the LCU scores were analysed within subcategories of the RLCQ, it was found that participants with BD perceived significantly more problems associated with the workplace as precipitants of a current MDE than individuals with MDD.

Conclusion. Most participants could link an ALE to the onset of a current MDE. The study did not find a differential response to ALEs between patients with BD and MDD. The severity of the social precipitants did not differ significantly between the two groups. The notion of a ‘kindling effect’ could not be supported by the outcome of this study. Because some study participants experienced ALEs not accounted for by the RLCQ, a more comprehensive assessment instrument may be more appropriate for similar studies.


Bipolar disorder; major depressive disorder

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v21i2.661

Submitted: 14 July 2014
Published: 01 May 2015

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South African Journal of Psychiatry    |    ISSN: 1608-9685 (PRINT)    |    ISSN: 2078-6786 (ONLINE)