In this month’s issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, my colleagues report a huge increase in the number of American children diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or manic-depressive illness). From 1994 to 2003, psychiatrists found a 40-fold increase in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it coincided with the rising use of antipsychotic medications for children.

I am not the only psychiatrist who thinks this surge is not real, but rather that kids are being mislabeled. Many doctors believe the bipolar disorder doesn’t even occur in children; we all agree it’s more difficult to validate psychiatric diagnoses in children. Nowadays, a kid with extreme mood swings who exhibits disruptive behavior or extreme irritability is bipolar, even though those symptoms can also be seen in lots of overlapping conditions, including ADHD, conduct and anxiety disorders, as well as depression. A generation ago, bipolar kids were apparently mislabeled as truants or troublemakers, but today we label problematic behaviors as mental illnesses. In spite of the fact that we can’t quite define these diseases, we know they can be helped by powerful prescription medications.

We are not witnessing an epidemic of bipolar children; what we are seeing is the result of the public’s awareness about what is a mental illness, largely spurred on by the heavy marketing of psychiatric drugs. Movie trailers, TV variety shows and Super Bowl spots are a marketing pipeline for selling drugs for mythical diseases. Like if you’re tired at the end of the day and unable to “wake up to life” you may have narcolepsy; if you’re shy at parties you could be suffering from a social anxiety disorder; feel like smacking the driver ahead, you may have an intermittent explosive disorder (all of which are treatable with potent medications). We are over-diagnosing; the U.S. ranks #1 in the world for mental illness, with 25% of all Americans now having a diagnosable mental illness!

From a generation of Americans who rebelliously experimented with drugs, we have become a generation who is now growing dependent upon them. This surge in bipolar kids is a wake-up call to an ever increasing demand for/ and access to, drugs to control behavior. We have to stop defining unacceptable behaviors as mental illnesses to explain and justify them, because if we don’t we will change from a self-reliant nation into a herd of functional drug addicts.

Last Mask of the Authentic Healer

Nov 30– Dec. 2, 2007
Franciscan Renewal Center, Phoenix, AZ
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