- Category: Occidentalogy
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The drug companies aren’t the only ones responsible for propagating this false epidemic. Patient advocacy groups can be very fiery too. The author ofBrandon and the Bipolar Bear, Tracy Anglada, is head of a childhood bipolar advocacy group called BP Children. She emailed me that she wished me all the best with my project but she didn’t want to be interviewed. If, however, I wanted to submit a completed manuscript to her, she added, she’d be happy to consider it for review.
Anglada’s friend Bryna Hebert has also written a children’s book: My Bipolar, Roller Coaster, Feelings Book. “Matt! Will you take your medicines please?” she called across the kitchen when I visited her at home in Barrington, Rhode Island. The medicines were lined up on the kitchen table. Her son Matt, 14 years old, took them straight away.
The family’s nickname for baby Matt had been Mister Manic Depressive. “Because his mood would change so fast. He’d be sitting in his high chair, happy as a clam; 2 seconds later he’d be throwing things across the room. When he was 3 he’d hit and not be sorry that he hit. He was obsessed with vampires. He’d cut out bits of paper and put them into his teeth like vampire teeth and go up to strangers. Hiss hiss hiss. It was a little weird.”
“Were you getting nervous?” I asked. “Yeah,” said Hebert. “One day he wanted some pretzels before lunch, and I told him no. He grabbed a butcher knife and threatened me.”
“How old was he?”
“Four. That was the only time he’s ever done anything that extreme,” she said. “Oh, he’s hit his sister Jessica in the head and kicked her in the stomach.”
“She’s the one who punched me in the head,” called Matt from across the room.
It was after the knife incident, Hebert said, they took him to be tested. As it happened, the paediatric unit at what was then their local hospital, Massachusetts General, was run by Joseph Biederman, the doyen of childhood bipolar disorder. According to a 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Biederman’s influence is so great that when he merely mentions a drug during a presentation, tens of thousands of children will end up taking it.” Biederman has said bipolar disorder can start, “from the moment the child opens his eyes”.
“When they were testing Matt he was under the table, he was on top of the table,” said Hebert. “We went through all these checklists. One of Dr Biederman’s colleagues said, “We really think Matt meets the criteria in theDSM for bipolar disorder.”
That was 10 years ago and Matt has been medicated ever since. So has his sister Jessica, who was also diagnosed by Biederman’s people as bipolar. “We’ve been through a million medications,” said Hebert. “There’s weight gain. Tics. Irritability. Sedation. They work for a couple of years then they stop working.”
Hebert was convinced her children were bipolar, and I wasn’t going to swoop into a stranger’s home for an afternoon and tell her they were normal. That would have been incredibly patronising and offensive. Plus, as the venerable child psychiatrist David Shaffer told me when I met him in New York later that evening, “These kids can be very oppositional, powerful kids who can take years off your happy life. But they aren’t bipolar.”
“So what are they?”
“Attention-deficit disorder?” he said. “Often with an ADD kid you think: ‘My God, they’re just like a manic adult.’ But they don’t grow up manic. And manic adults weren’t ADD when they were children. But they’re being labelled bipolar.
“That’s an enormous label that’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life. You’re being told you have a condition which is going to make you unreliable, prone to terrible depressions and suicide.”
The debate around childhood bipolar is not going away. In 2008, The New York Times published excerpts from an internal hospital document in which Biederman promised to “move forward the commercial goals of Johnson & Johnson”, the firm that funds his hospital unit and sells the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. Biederman has denied the allegations of conflict of interest.
Frances has called for the diagnosis of childhood bipolar to be thrown out of the next edition of DSM, which is now being drawn up by the American Psychiatric Association.
This article shouldn’t be read as a polemic against psychiatry. There are a lot of unhappy and damaged people out there whose symptoms manifest themselves in odd ways. I get irritated by critics who seem to think that because psychiatry has elements of irrationality, there is essentially no such thing as mental illness. There is. Childhood bipolar, however, seems to me an example of things having gone palpably wrong.
On the night of 13 December 2006, in Boston, Massachusetts, 4-year-old Rebecca Riley had a cold and couldn’t sleep. Her mother, Carolyn Riley, gave her some cold medicine, and some of her bipolar medication, and told her she could sleep on the floor next to the bed. When she tried to wake Rebecca the next morning, she discovered her daughter was dead.
The autopsy revealed that Rebecca’s parents had given her an overdose of the antipsychotic drugs she had been prescribed for her bipolar disorder. They had got into the habit of feeding her the medicines to shut her up when she was being annoying. They were both convicted of Rebecca’s murder.
Rebecca had been diagnosed as bipolar at 2-and-a-half, and given medication by an upstanding psychiatrist who was a fan of Biederman’s research into childhood bipolar. Rebecca had scored high on the DSM checklist, even though like most toddlers she could barely string a sentence together.
Shortly before her trial, Carolyn Riley was interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutesshow by Katie Couric:
KC: Do you think Rebecca really had bipolar disorder?
CR: Probably not.
KC: What do you think was wrong with her now?
CR: I don’t know. Maybe she was just hyper for her age.
Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary maker living in London. He is the author of five books, including The Men Who Stare at Goats. His latest book,The Psychopath Test, is about the psychiatry industry
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