Impact of Childhood Abuse on the Course of Bipolar Disorder: A Replication Study in U.S. Veterans

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Background: The association between early childhood abuse and the course of illness, including psychiatric comorbidities, in adults with bipolar disorder has not been examined in a predominantly male or veteran population. Methods: As part of the VA Cooperative Study 430, "Reducing the Efficacy-Effectiveness Gap in Bipolar Disorder," 330 veterans (91% male) with bipolar I or II disorder who were enrolled in a 3-year prospective study were examined for baseline data obtained at study entry. Diagnoses were determined by the use of the SCID. A semistructured interview designed to elicit data about exposure to childhood physical, sexual, or combined abuse was conducted as part of baseline demographic and clinical information. Other reports from this data set have not addressed the issues of childhood adversity. Results: Childhood abuse was reported by 48.3% of the subjects (47.3% of men). Any abuse (AA) was reported by 48.3%; sexual abuse without physical abuse (SA) was reported by 8%, physical abuse without sexual abuse (PA) by 20.7%, and both types of abuse (combined abuse, CA) by 18.7% of the male subjects. Female veterans reported more SA (27%) and less PA (6.7%). AA subjects were more likely to have current PTSD and lifetime diagnoses of panic disorder and alcohol use disorders. CA was associated with lower SF-36 Mental scores, higher likelihood of current PTSD and lifetime diagnoses of alcohol use disorders, as well as more lifetime episodes of major depression and higher likelihood of at least one suicide attempt. Younger age at study entry was associated with AA and PA. Limitations: Potential limitations include generalizability beyond the male, veteran population of patients with bipolar disorder and the methodology used to elicit abuse histories. Conclusions: Similar to studies of predominantly female nonveteran samples, this study extends the finding that a history of childhood abuse acts as a disease course modifier in male veterans with bipolar disorder. Clinicians should routinely seek information regarding abuse and be aware that these patients may be more difficult to treat than bipolar patients who have no abuse histories.