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Insider: Lithium is a medication used for the treatment of bipolar disorder and severe depression

By Erin Heger

Lithium is one of the most widely-used medications for the treatment of bipolar disorder because it decreases suicidal thoughts — a leading cause of death in those with bipolar — and helps manage both manic and depressive episodes.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects about 2.8% of the US adult population and is a condition characterized by episodes of mania and depression.

But, lithium may not be the best choice for everyone with bipolar disorder.

Lithium is part of a class of psychotherapeutic drugs known as mood stabilizers. 

While other medications might work better for some people, lithium remains a common form of treatment for stabilizing manic episodes, characterized by racing thoughts, grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, and hallucinations, says Shayla Sullivant, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. It can also be used as a maintenance drug to prevent future manic and depressive episodes.

Research has shown lithium to be effective in treating both manic and depressive episodes affiliated with bipolar disorder and in minimizing the risk of suicidal behaviors.

Patients typically start out on a low dose taken twice a day. But some people may require only one dose a day or up to three depending on the severity of their symptoms, Sullivant says. For the average person, a dose of lithium can range anywhere from 300 mg to 1,800 mg a day. 

While lithium can cause side effects, and may not be the best choice for everyone with bipolar disorder, it is effective at decreasing suicide risk and managing symptoms of mania.

"Lithium is life-saving for some, particularly those with bipolar disorder who struggle with suicidal thoughts," says Sullivant. "So, while there is certainly risk in taking it, there is also great risk in not treating a condition like bipolar disorder."


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Learn more about Developmental and Behavioral Health at Children's Mercy