Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bipolar kids: Victims of the 'madness industry'?

THERE'S a children's picture book in the US called Brandon and the Bipolar Bear. Brandon and his bear sometimes fly into unprovoked rages.

Sometimes they're silly and overexcited. A nice doctor tells them they are ill, and gives them medicine that makes them feel much better.
The thing is, if Brandon were a real child, he would have just been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Also known as manic depression, this serious condition, involving dramatic mood swings, is increasingly being recorded in American children. And a vast number of them are being medicated for it.

The problem is, this apparent epidemic isn't real. "Bipolar emerges from late adolescence," says Ian Goodyer, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge who studies child and adolescent depression. "It is very, very unlikely indeed that you'll find it in children under 7 years."

How did this strange, sweeping misdiagnosis come to pass? How did it all start? These were some of the questions I explored when researching The Psychopath Test, my new book about the odder corners of the "madness industry".

Freudian slip

The answer to the second question turned out to be strikingly simple. It was really all because of one man: Robert Spitzer.

I met Spitzer in his large, airy house in Princeton, New Jersey. In his eighties now, he remembered his childhood camping trips to upstate New York. "I'd sit in the tent, looking out, writing notes about the lady campers," he said. "Their attributes." He smiled. "I've always liked to classify people."

The trips were respite from Spitzer's "very unhappy mother". In the 1940s, the only help on offer was psychoanalysis, the Freudian-based approach of exploring the patient's unconscious. "She went from one psychoanalyst to another," said Spitzer. He watched the psychoanalysts flailing uselessly. She never got better.

Spitzer grew up to be a psychiatrist at Columbia University, New York, his dislike of psychoanalysis remaining undimmed. And then, in 1973, an opportunity to change everything presented itself. There was a job going editing the next edition of a little-known spiral-bound booklet called DSM - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

DSM is simply a list of all the officially recognised mental illnesses and their symptoms. Back then it was a tiny book that reflected the Freudian thinking predominant in the 1960s. It had very few pages, and very few readers.

What nobody knew when they offered Spitzer the job was that he had a plan: to try to remove human judgement from psychiatry. He would create a whole new DSM that would eradicate all that crass sleuthing around the unconscious; it hadn't helped his mother.

Instead it would be all about checklists. Any psychiatrist could pick up the manual, and if the patient's symptoms tallied with the checklist for a particular disorder, that would be the diagnosis.
Bipolar kids: Victims of the 'madness industry'? - health - 08 June 2011 - New Scientist


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