A clinical approach to treatment resistance in depressed patients: What to do when the usual treatments don’t work well enough?

Seetal Dodd, Michael Bauer, Andre F. Carvalho, Harris Eyre, Maurizio Fava, Siegfried Kasper, Sidney H. Kennedy, Jon Paul Khoo, Carlos Lopez Jaramillo, Gin S. Malhi, Roger S. McIntyre, Philip B. Mitchell, Angela Marianne Paredes Castro, Aswin Ratheesh, Emanuel Severus, Trisha Suppes, Madhukar H. Trivedi, Michael E. Thase, Lakshmi N. Yatham, Allan H. YoungMichael Berk

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Background: Major depressive disorder is a common, recurrent, disabling and costly disorder that is often severe and/or chronic, and for which non-remission on guideline concordant first-line antidepressant treatment is the norm. A sizeable percentage of patients diagnosed with MDD do not achieve full remission after receiving antidepressant treatment. How to understand or approach these ‘refractory’, ‘TRD’ or ‘difficult to treat’ patients need to be revisited. Treatment resistant depression (TRD) has been described elsewhere as failure to respond to adequate treatment by two different antidepressants. This definition is problematic as it suggests that TRD is a subtype of major depressive disorder (MDD), inferring a boundary between TRD and depression that is not treatment resistant. However, there is scant evidence to suggest that a discrete TRD entity exists as a distinct subtype of MDD, which itself is not a discrete or homogeneous entity. Similarly, the boundary between TRD and other forms of depression is predicated at least in part on regulatory and research requirements rather than biological evidence or clinical utility. Aim: This paper aims to investigate the notion of treatment failure in order to understand (i) what is TRD in the context of a broader formulation based on the understanding of depression, (ii) what factors make an individual patient difficult to treat, and (iii) what is the appropriate and individualised treatment strategy, predicated on an individual with refractory forms of depression? Method: Expert contributors to this paper were sought internationally by contacting representatives of key professional societies in the treatment of MDD–World Federation of Societies for Biological Psychiatry, Australasian Society for Bipolar and Depressive Disorders, International Society for Affective Disorders, Collegium Internationale Neuro-Psychopharmacologium and the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments. The manuscript was prepared through iterative editing. Outcomes: The concept of TRD as a discrete subtype of MDD, defined by failure to respond to pharmacotherapy, is not supported by evidence. Between 15 and 30% of depressive episodes fail to respond to adequate trials of 2 antidepressants, and 68% of individuals do not achieve remission from depression after a first-line course of antidepressant treatment. Failure to respond to antidepressant treatment, somatic therapies or psychotherapies may often reflect other factors including; biological resistance, diagnostic error, limitations of current therapies, psychosocial variables, a past history of exposure to childhood maltreatment or abuse, job satisfaction, personality disorders, co-morbid mental and physical disorders, substance use or non-adherence to treatment. Only a subset of patients not responding to antidepressant treatment can be explained through pharmacokinetic or pharmacodynamics mechanisms. We propose that non remitting MDD should be personalised, and propose a strategy of ‘deconstructing depression’. By this approach, the clinician considers which factors contribute to making this individual both depressed and ‘resistant’ to previous therapeutic approaches. Clinical formulation is required to understand the nature of the depression. Many predictors of response are not biological, and reflect a confluence of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors, which may influence the illness in a particular individual. After deconstructing depression at a personalised level, a personalised treatment plan can be constructed. The treatment plan needs to address the factors that have contributed to the individual’s hard to treat depression. In addition, an individual with a history of illness may have a lot of accumulated life issues due to consequences of their illness, and these should be addressed in a recovery plan. Limitations: A ‘deconstructing depression’ qualitative rubric does not easily provide clear inclusion and exclusion criteria for researchers wanting to investigate TRD. Conclusions: MDD is a polymorphic disorder and many individuals who fail to respond to standard pharmacotherapy and are considered hard to treat. These patients are best served by personalised approaches that deconstruct the factors that have contributed to the patient’s depression and implementing a treatment plan that adequately addresses these factors. The existence of TRD as a discrete and distinct subtype of MDD, defined by two treatment failures, is not supported by evidence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)483-494
Number of pages12
JournalWorld Journal of Biological Psychiatry
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2021


  • Depression; resistance; therapy; psychiatry; mental health; neuroscience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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